Friday, August 5, 2016

You don't have to understand someone's suffering to have compassion for them

Apropos of my previous post, I have some media recommendations for you. The documentary Fat: What No One is Telling You got my attention when I recently browsed the PBS DVDs at my local library. Curious if it features any holistic health ideas, I was particularly interested in any presentation of spirituality as a personal resource for making sense of struggles with addictive eating behaviors and excess weight.

Spirituality is totally absent from the narrative, and after a brief contemplation, I realized why. Most people have not been taught how to directly apply their spiritual practice to their physical struggles, beyond praying to overcome them. Many religious teachings place more emphasis on valuing the spiritual over the material than on reconciling the two so they work together. Because of this emphasis on disassociating from the physical, people have learned to view their bodies with ambivalence, and their sufferings of the flesh as personal failures.

I love that I can relate this post to, which I’ve written about in almost every one of my interfaith-related posts: There’s a great interview here with Ragan Sutterfield, who wrote the book This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith, which presents a view of this issue for those with God-centered spirituality, such as Christianity or the Bahá’í Faith.

As a Buddhist, the best way to plug my spirituality into my struggles with addictive eating behaviors is putting my experience into a broader karmic perspective. Buddhism places emphasis on karma, a concept commonly misunderstood in Western society. We’re more accustomed to the reward / punishment model; people using this model see the “Eastern” spiritual concept of karma through this lens. Thus, karma gets reduced to a two-dimensional cliché stripped of its connection with personal growth, as I pointed out here. Good fortune from our karma is seen as a reward, and suffering resulting from our karma is seen as punishment (i.e., it’s “our fault” we suffer).

As I pointed out previously, essential to a more accurate understanding of karma is replacing the word “fault” with the word “responsibility”. Not only does this help us learn to view our own sufferings as opportunities to change ourselves in a positive way, it helps us develop another central trait of Buddhism in our perception and treatment of others: Compassion.

The most heartbreaking thing about Fat is the lack of compassion endured by every one of the people who bravely told their most embarrassing and painful personal stories. Some have been denied medical care, shamed by their doctors to the point they couldn’t even bring themselves to go to the doctor anymore, completely ignored by customer service personnel, and had the people they love the most display the least willingness to see the root of their suffering as anything other than their failure as human beings to discipline themselves better. Having once been berated angrily by a close relative for gaining a lot of weight during a particularly difficult period in my early twenties, and more recently told by a long-time acquaintance the reason I don’t have a boyfriend is because I need to lose weight so I’ll have a “nice shape” that a man will want, I can relate.

We’ve heard so much from people who want to “cure” obesity, that it was good to hear from “fat” people themselves who are fed up with being treated as clinical study specimens and evaluated by their physical size instead of by who they are as people. The point of this documentary is not to provide the answers to their problems, but to point out what the questions are.

Questions for us to ask ourselves are, unless we ourselves are clinically responsible for assisting someone in their healthcare, does it matter if we can’t relate to their problem because we don’t have that problem? If we lack experience with any kind of addiction, does that have to block us from feeling compassion toward such people? These are far more important questions to ask ourselves as healthcare laypeople than to try to figure out the magic formula for helping our loved ones (or ourselves) lose weight.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Oil pastel

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