There is a lot of pain and suffering in this world. Desensitization is a survival trait that allows us to keep functioning and getting things done even when we witness one tragedy after another. In fact, people who are extremely sensitive and possess great empathy often struggle because they cannot effectively shut out others’ pain and can become debilitated by it. For example, I have worked for years with heroin addicts and I have always been amazed at how sensitive they are – as a group – to the plight of others. In fact, they are so sensitive that they feel compelled to turn to the numbing effects of the drug to shut it off.
Learning how to relate to a world that is so full of hurt is one of life’s great endeavors. It leads to many personality types – and potentially, to lots of psychological problems. It has been my experience that pretending that the suffering of this world does not personally affect me is a dangerous delusion. Deep down, we all know that we are interconnected to everything around us and therefore impacted by the travails of others. We also know that hard times catch up to everyone sooner or later. The challenge is to be open and sensitive to what is going on around us while not being overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. In order to do this, we must develop a purpose that gives meaning to both the good and the not-so-good times.
It is a Chassidic axiom that the world is inherently broken and that our souls will never be at peace until we find a way to fix it. The idea of tikkun olam (the repair of the world) is one of the greatest gifts of the Jewish tradition to the world. It reconciles the fact that good people often suffer, with the concept of an all-powerful and all-loving G-d. It answers the question often asked after a tragedy, “How could G-d allow this to happen?”
Tikkun Olam teaches that the world is a work in progress and that G-d has enlisted us as partners in its completion. There is an end goal that we are all working towards, and the truth is that some things need to be broken along the way in order to achieve it. This idea is played out in nature all the time. For example, if we want a loaf of bread we must start off by plowing under a pristine field, violently ripping and breaking up the ground. Then we bury the wheat seeds under the dirt. After a while, the seed casings begin to rot and decay, which allows green shoots to sprout forth. Soon, the field is covered by a soft green blanket of young wheat plants that will – over the course of months – mature into tall, straight stalks. Next, we destroy these “amber waves of grain” by slicing the wheat plants at their stems, gathering them up, and then beating and shaking the plants in order to separate the kernels from the chaff. Grinding the grain into fine powder between large stones is the final step. At last, we have flour, which is the essential ingredient for bread.
Agriculture is a process of constant transformation from one state to another, often accomplished by destroying the original form. In order to plant, we have to “destroy” the field. In order for the shoots to emerge, the seed casings have to rot. In order to get the grain we must “kill” and “traumatize” the plants. Finally, we have to pulverize the seeds into flour. It would be hard to justify this operation if there were no worthwhile product at the end of the day. However, we do not feel any guilt because the bread we eat sustains life, and therefore the entire operation is purposeful and meaningful.
We can view the course of human history in the same way. We have been working towards an end goal for thousands of years, namely the messianic era which will bring the world to completion and perfection – and bring an end to suffering. History creates limitless opportunities for deepening relationships between people and drawing us all together in a spirit of cooperation. Look how recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan have triggered massive, world-wide outpourings of giving and mobilized entire nations to respond with coordinated relief efforts.
The proper response to suffering is to reach out and connect to others in a way that alleviates the situation. New and deeper relationships can result from a crisis when we are able to stave off despair and actively pursue the goal of improving the lives of those in pain. When we respond to life’s suffering in this way we bring the world one step closer to completion. This perspective allows us to remain active, purposeful, and even joyful, while not shutting ourselves off from the real hardships that surround us. It encourages us to focus our efforts on bringing an end to suffering because we realize that this is the ultimate purpose of our lives.