A story from the Confucian Tradition:
One night Confucius dreamt that he was taken to visit the damned in hell. He was very surprised to see that hell was a beautiful banqueting room, with the damned sitting around the table, groaning under the weight of the most delicious food he had ever seen. They were allowed to eat anything they liked, but they had to use chopsticks, and the chopsticks were five foot long. The damned were starving, staring in agony at the uneaten food before them, knowing that even with all eternity in which to solve the problem, it could not be done. And then Confucius is taken to heaven. And heaven is an identical banqueting hall, full of delicious food. The people around the tables are happy and well fed, but they, too, must obey the same rule. The food can only be eaten with chopsticks that are five foot long. The food can only be eaten with chopsticks that are five foot long. Only in heaven, they're feeding each other.
It was a warm, sunny, dry day in Mangochi, Malawi. Red dust kicked up as our tiny bus pulled into the parking lot, and we piled out. The first thing I saw looking toward the hospital building was a long line of people wrapped all the way around the hospital, waiting to get treatment. Many of the people were women, some holding babies, some holding hands with their husbands or their sisters. Some of these people had come from just down the road, and some walked nearly 25 kilometers to get treatment, starting their journey just as I had gone to bed. Everyone waited patiently, no one complained. Inside the hospital, we walked down long, white hallways, filled with white, empty walls.
Finally, a sign read "Infectious disease ward." We were going to meet the malaria patients and learn about the treatment they were undergoing. When we reached the malaria treatment room, our tour guide stopped us and began to describe the procedures for treating malaria patients. I began to scribble furiously on my notepad, as usual, but I stopped suddenly and looked up. A young woman was staring at me, gently rocking her baby up and down, trying to keep her calm. The baby was pale, and looked tired, maybe malnourished. I went to the woman, and she smiled at me. My limited Chichewa allowed me to get her name, her baby's name and her religion. Her name was Aisha, and the little girl was Salima. They were Muslim. Aisha looked terrified, but in some way, hopeful. Our tour guide came over to us, smiled at Aisha and Salima, and matter-of-factly told me: "This baby has Malaria. As a result, she is anemic, and at this point, her condition is beyond treatment ... she probably will not live more than a week." I stood there frozen, looking at Aisha. I felt helpless, what could I do? I had no medicine, I had nothing to offer, I could not even tell her how awful I felt. All I could do was hold Aisha's hand as she smiled back at me, looking terrified, but somehow hopeful.
On the bus ride to our next destination that day, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed. If Aisha and Salima had been born in my country, not only would Salima probably not have contracted Malaria in the first place, but she would have received basic treatment that would have saved her life. How could Aisha, standing right in front of me, live in such a different world?
In being human, we all experience suffering. We have been reminded multiple times these past weeks that we all suffer. Sometimes this suffering stems from senseless, pointless, actions by people or circumstances that are not fair and that we do not understand. In the story, the people in hell seated at the table suffer equally. But is this accurate? Do we all suffer equally? How could I possibly say my life is as hard as Aisha's, after losing her child? Wouldn't the story make more sense if certain people were standing behind those at the table, suffering even more, because they don't even have a place to sit? So how do I deal with my suffering, when it seems others' is far worse and far more urgent?
The truth is, I don't think suffering is a numbers game. The first of the 4 Noble Truths in Buddhism says, "Suffering is inevitable." It doesn't say how much, or who, or what hardship wins the award for the most suffering. Perhaps the people at the table are not all suffering the same way. The real point is, the people are so self-consumed in their own suffering, they can't see that helping the others would end the entire tables' collective suffering. The difference between suffering alone, and finding joy together is so slight.
When I told my mom about Aisha, she shared another story with me. She said when I was born, after being premature and sick, people asked her when she finally held me if she felt "overjoyed" and "the happiest she had ever been." She replied: "No, I felt terrified. I knew I was responsible for this person's life, for the rest of my life. It doesn't matter where you come from or what you believe, being a mother is the same for all mothers. You won't understand until you are one, and when you are one, you will never forget."
I certainly do not wish to disqualify Aisha's struggle. I cannot imagine holding my own daughter in my arms, knowing she was sick beyond treatment. The path to end all our suffering starts in recognizing not how we are different, but how we are alike, and how we can learn from every single person we meet. The day I stepped off plane in Lilongwe, I admit, I felt an iron barrier between the citizens of Malawi and me. That barrier quickly disintegrated as I realized I was the one creating it. I visited villages with no running water, no electricity, and families that almost never ate three meals a day stably. I expected these people to hate me for what I have, my opportunities, my experiences, my "stuff." But my "stuff" was irrelevant. My new friends hosted me for dinner and shared their love for their community and for God. My friends found love and compassion so naturally, because it was the only thing they had. I learned more about the nature of my own suffering in Malawi than I did about anyone else's.
In Heaven, they feed each other. In Heaven, we need each other to eat, but we find joy in this need because it breaks down the barriers of difference and highlights our shared humanity. If we are to end our own suffering, we need to start by seeking to help and allow ourselves to be helped. We need to start feeding each other.
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