Some schools of thought say our self-image causes suffering. It doesn’t matter if this self-image is positive or negative, or what it’s based in. Just having one is a problem because it keeps getting threatened. In short, most of our pain is an identity crisis, although we rarely realize it.
This is often hidden because we externalize the source of our suffering. One way we do this is with “justified anger”, an anger that we think is really due to things being wrong in an objective sense. Even if true, the self is still at the root of our pain. However, I often find that justified anger is a sham and it is easily dealt with by unraveling it.
To unravel this “justified anger” — to see that it’s a lie — we just have to examine our experience, especially the painful ones. For instance, we can take a painful situation — it could even be a mild irritation — and look closely at it, ask questions, and/or do some thought experiments to see what’s really happening.
I will use some actual personal examples.They are petty things because in my case — and I do not think I am alone — most of my suffering is from many small things rather than a few big ones. Further, the little things often masquerade as big ones. However, I believe this scales up to the big things.
For example, I would get irritated when drivers ran lights, cut others off and so on. Now this seems logical; where I live, this is un-ethical, illegal and unsafe. However, I do not get irritated if a friend, elderly driver, postal vehicle or bus does this. On the other hand people driving sports cars, certain teens and even tow trucks especially bothered me! Clearly, if this were about ethics, I would be upset in all cases. Additionally, if this were about safety, I would be more upset if a bus did this.
Or another example. If I am in a coffee shop, I would get upset if someone had the volume up on their computer while playing a game or music video. However, I would enjoy many of the loud chess games (yes, I saw this a lot) that went on. If I was really concerned about the noise level or consideration, I would be upset in all cases.
There are numerous other cases, but I think this is enough.
So why am I upset in some cases, but not in others? In all these cases, my reaction is based on how the offending groups relate to my self-image. The ones that do not bother me reinforce or do not threaten my self-image, and vice versa. For instance, I like chess but dislike teens who remind me of myself during a time in my life I would rather forget.
I recommend trying this yourself because seeing this in action is much more effective than reading about it. Seeing it even once is helpful, but we keep reverting to old habits, so this may be a long term project. Your irritations, exceptions and exercises my differ, yet deep down the self is at the root of pain, and it hides behind any externalization it can, one of them being justified anger.
NOTE ON A CONCERN FOR OTHERS
This article does not attack a concern for others (ethics, love, compassion, etc…). It attacks illusory feelings which masquerade as a concern for others. A real concern for others is action driven by intention, and not a feeling. Yes, feelings may motivate action, but if that is our condition for action, what if they are not there? What if someone we dislike is in need, or someone we love is doing something wrong, or we just do not have the “right” feeling at the time? By showing these feelings to be self-centered, we no longer define our concern for others by them, and can put that concern on a more secure basis, like a logical understanding of suffering and what we can do to reduce it. Put another way, showing these feelings to be a sham can make us more ethical (or loving, compassionate, etc…).