Year of Discovery (Week 14: Comparative Suffering and Soul Friendships)

Audrey Cheng
6 min readJul 7, 2021

It’s winter season in Nairobi. In the few minutes or hours that the sun's rays shine through the cold air and cloudy skies, I quickly rush outside to feel the light warmth on my skin. This season is a good reminder of the ever-changing nature outside and inside each one of us. As I experience easy, calm days and more turbulent days, it’s also a reminder that improving or changing external conditions isn’t the solution to our problems. Whether it’s hot or cold outside, problems exist and come from inside of us and the real work continues to happen within.

In the chilly air this week, a friend and I went through a manifestation exercise to help us refocus our energies and hours towards what we are aiming to manifest in our lives. It was the first time that I had done a longer-term visioning exercise for my own life and it helped me see how the way I’m spending my days is or isn’t serving a broader vision. Viewing life through a series of time horizons is something I want to continue to do on my journey.

This week, I’m sharing some reflections on comparative suffering and friendships / the second self.

Comparative Suffering

This week, my ears perked up when a friend was sharing about a difficult roadblock she was going through and added: ‘Well no one in my immediate family has been affected by COVID so this is really a non-issue.” She was comparing her own challenge at hand to a separate, unrelated problem and I was a bit taken aback by how quickly she belittled her situation.

This made me reflect on a number of instances when I’ve observed myself or a friend rationalize and compare our suffering to that of others in an attempt to diminish how much the challenge at hand was impacting us. We did this instead of sitting in the uncomfortable feelings and doubts that the challenge stirred up inside of us.

“One of the things that’s immediately triggered in fear and scarcity is comparison…What’s crazy about comparison is that even our pain and our hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. Without thinking, we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel.

This is not how emotion works. Emotions don’t go away because we send them a message that they don’t score high enough on the suffering board. The emotions that we feel when we deny them double down — they burrow, fester and metastasize. Not only do our feelings double down and grow, they invite shame to the party. Now we’re like: I am a bad person because I’m sad or scared or lonely or frustrated or disappointed and other people have it so much worse than me.

— Brene Brown

As Brene also shares, comparative suffering is dangerous because it comes from the belief that empathy is finite. That we can’t give empathy to ourselves because we need to save that for others. The reality is that empathy is unlimited and we can see that when we cultivate it.

“When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world.”

In a world where every being suffers, it’s critical to give empathy unconditionally and wholeheartedly to ourselves and to others. One of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that all living beings suffer. If we sit still, we can observe the suffering inside each of us: the doubt, the anxiety, the insecurity, the ‘not being good enough’, the fears. In different flavors and forms, we experience suffering and only we know the true essence and feelings around our own suffering. In this, sitting with our feelings (however uncomfortable they are) instead of evading them by comparing our suffering with others enables us to learn deeply about ourselves.

We can employ different tools like the 5 Whys and ask ourselves ‘Why’ five times:

  • Why does this hurt so much?
  • And why is that important to me?
  • And why is that important to me?
  • And why is that important to me?
  • And why is that important to me?

…to help us understand the root cause of our pain. Oftentimes, the wisdom we gain from this practice allows us to evolve and understand the suffering more. Each moment of discomfort is an opportunity to learn about ourselves better. And by being curious and having empathy for ourselves, we are able to grow empathy for others.

Questions to reflect on:

  • In what ways have you compared your suffering to others?
  • Why did the event/person/experience hurt you so much? x5
  • In what ways can you be more empathetic to yourself and to others?

Friendships and the Second Self

I’ve been digging more into the wisdom of the ancients (through podcasts, books, essays) recently to understand what we can learn from the past about the shared human experience. A theme that I’ve come across and reflected on this week: friendship.

Aristotle says there are three types of friendships: 1) utility 2) pleasure 3) mutual appreciation of one another’s deep values. The third type of friendship is what he finds most importance in: these are the friends whose presence makes the other friend a better person.

“A friend is a second self, so that our consciousness of a friend’s existence…makes us more fully conscious of our own existence.” — Aristotle

Friendships can be many things and they can serve as strong self-reinforcing cycles of growth, values and accountability. While Aristotle says that we can make ourselves the kind of person we want to be, he also emphasizes the importance of deep friendships that reinforce the progress we are making towards being the kind of person we want to be. For example, if I have a goal to become more courageous and brave, and I share that with a close friend who celebrates and encourages me towards more brave actions and decisions, then I am only going to progress further and with more confidence than if I drove my growth more independently.

Friendship and community also serves as a strong ‘second self’ towards leading spiritual, kind and purpose-driven lives. For example, in Buddhism, part of the Noble Eightfold Path is the right association, which emphasizes the importance of people who are pursuing the path towards spiritual enlightenment sharing a setting with others who are also trying to pursue that path. This enables them to experience a less arduous journey and one they can share with others, which only encourages the choice in their path.

The idea of close and deep friendships who hold up ‘mirrors’ has transcended many cultures and philosophies. A close friend and I talk often about the concept of ‘Anam Cara’, the Gaelic word for ‘soul friend’. In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara.

John O’Donohue, Author of Anam Cara

I feel lucky to have met incredible people whose soul connects with mine deeply. These people inspire me through the way they treat others, the attention and kindness they give openly without expecting anything in return, their growing compassion with themselves. They light up in play and fun, contemplate on the human experience, engage with their own traumas through acceptance and forgiveness, and encourage me to be a better version of myself.

Questions to reflect on:

  • What role do friendships serve in your life? Based on Aristotle’s distinction: utility, pleasure, mutual appreciation of one another’s deep values.
  • What friendships do you consider soul friends or people who are your second self? How do you want to cultivate these relationships?

What I’m reading this week: The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity

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Audrey Cheng

Taiwanese American. Curious about ideas and solutions that support human flourishing.