B: When we talk about certain things or traits people have, it almost seems inevitable that it becomes a contest about who has the most/least, or who’s the best/worst, etc. And it’s no different with suffering. Plenty of talk goes around about how a certain person, or a certain group of people, has been so underprivileged that they deserve some pity, welfare, or perhaps even legislation to correct the “inequality” by which they have been wronged.
On the other end of the scale, however, there are people who don’t appear to have suffered a day in their lives, because they’ve always had enough to provide for themselves and their families, and then some. Or perhaps I should say that it seems that they should have no reason to complain, because they’re so well off. It’s almost as if they are barred from expressing any discontentment.
A: Good heavens. You’re not going to try to defend those people, are you? Are you one of them yourself?
B: No, actually I’m going to say that really, nobody has reason to complain; that is, everybody should be willing to endure whatever suffering they are subjected to, because God has allowed it to happen for their own good. Not that we shouldn’t be trying to improve our lot in life, or that we shouldn’t try to avoid suffering – of course we should. Nobody, after suffering through the furnace of affliction, should go get back in line for another thrilling round. Suffering is going to happen anyway, and nobody is exempt; it’s as sure as death and taxes. So why should anyone ever complain?
A: Because, obviously, some have it worse than others.
B: And here we get back into the comparisons, which lead to endless discussions about what should be done for certain people, including whether we should take from or otherwise inconvenience those who we think suffer less so that those we think suffer more can be put on an even playing field; i.e., “make equal the inequality.” But instead of that, may I offer the simple reminder that we can never truly understand how another person feels?
A: What good does that do?
B: Let me illustrate with a couple of observations. First, consider people who grew up in an underdeveloped country, raised in families that were dirt poor, going nearly every day worrying about how to get the next meal, and so on. Just about everybody who lives in the more “prosperous” countries feels sorry for such people, because they themselves have never had to worry about those things. But if you actually were one of those “poorer” people, wouldn’t you get used to it after a while? Most people in that situation learn how to be content with what they have. If they go without a meal or two sometimes, they may not think it’s such a big deal. They realize that even without having everything they might want, they can be happy. If material wealth was a precondition of happiness, then well over 90% of the population of those underdeveloped countries would be miserable. Not only that, but there have been so-called “poor” people throughout the ages, in every country. Really, perhaps 99% of people who ever lived before the 20th century had fewer conveniences than the average American family has today, and that includes people who may have been considered wealthy in their own day! Somehow, all those people got by. What, do you suppose they were miserable simply because they didn’t have cars, computers, cell phones, and all kinds of other material goods most Americans enjoy today? They found happiness in their own way. They had their fair share of trials, obviously, like everybody does – and yet they still managed to find contentment with their lot in life. And if they weren’t content, then either they did something about it – to better their own lives, often leading to innovations that ended up benefitting themselves and society in general – or they moped around complaining about how miserable they were.
On the other hand, consider the people who have always been well off – who were born into a lot of money, and were provided with everything they wanted that money could buy. We poke fun at whatever “trials” such people may have to face, such as not having just the proper proportions at a meal, or having to do mundane tasks themselves instead of somebody else doing it for them. How would it be for them to face certain adversity, like, say, having to go without a meal or two? It may be a far greater inconvenience to them than it is for those “poorer” people mentioned above. And, of course, nobody feels sorry for them; indeed, it is a temptation to jeer and otherwise take pleasure in the sufferings of those who have many things we may want for ourselves. But if you had never known want, how do you think you would take it if you were suddenly faced with it? Wouldn’t it be fairly difficult?