John Cage — composer and Zen-kinda-guy — was once asked something to the effect of whether there was too much suffering in the world. His response? “No, there’s just the right amount.”
It took me years to fully understand what he meant by that enigmatic statement. But when I did, it brought me great peace, somewhat in the way that Ms. Chancer describes.
Yes, there’s an enormous amount of suffering in the world. Yes, vast amounts of it is caused by unconscionable injustices. Yes, we should fight with every fiber of our being to rectify those injustices. But …
This world’s suffering is … well … it simply is. It must be accepted and understood to be what it is: an aspect of the world that … well … simply is. Rending our garments and gnashing our teeth does not reduce it. Calm, effective, concerted, focused action can change what is to what could be.
“Just the right amount” doesn’t mean “Just the best amount,” or “Just an acceptable amount.” It means the amount of suffering that our current world currently provides is the amount of suffering that our current world provides. It’s the suffering that results from our collective actions. It’s the right amount — but an amount that can be changed if our collective actions change.
To put it another way, as a fellow theater company member once said when discussing how to get out from under some heinous decisions by The Powers That Be™, “If the shit’s falling on your head, maybe it’s because you’re standing in the wrong place.” He paused for that to sink in, then said, “So move.”
Let’s continue to move towards a more-just world, but as we do, please realize that—in our culture’s current condition—the amount of suffering is just right. It is what it is. And it’s our heartening challenge to change that, and not to feel defeated, depressed, or alone.
How hard should each of us work? Just the right amount.