Studying Suffering At The Market

I don’t enjoy what I’m good at. I have a knack for choosing the slowest checkout line to stand in at stores. I somehow know which cashier will run out of register tape just when it’s my turn to pay. Even when in a rush, I have an innate ability to find the customers returning merchandise and stand behind them. While I am good at knowing the slowest checkout lines to stand in, I am bad at understanding the questions cashiers ask. I’m too honest, I think.

When I left a 50-pound bag of dog food in the shopping cart and the cashier asked, “Dog food for you?” I answered, “No. It’s for my dog.” When cashiers ask, “Did you find everything you need?” I say, “No, but that’s what religion is for.”

Indeed, religion can make the difficult times bearable, meaningful and even pleasurable.

How does religion do this? One of the basic functions of religion is to help followers make sense out of “non-sense.” As one of my professors was fond of saying, “Religions are meaning producing systems.” Religion offers different models of faith strategies to deal with misfortune and unpleasant situations, transforming the meaningless into something meaningful in the process. By providing a why to life, religion enables us to bear almost any how.

While there are more models than I can cover in a short article, here is a brief look at some of the more common ones I’ve used to rationalize frustrating experiences, both as an overtasked, underappreciated cashier years ago and as a self-centered customer now.

Judicial Model Suffering is punishment for past transgressions. I am standing in the slowest checkout line because of the bad karma I’ve accumulated or as punishment for sin. I must be patient and endure, and I will be renewed once I emerge from this trial. Besides, it’s better I suffer now in this world than to face judgment in the world to come.

Medicinal Model Suffering is good spiritual medicine for me. Waiting in line 15 minutes to buy a greeting card will make me a better person. It cleanses my soul. It turns my attention to the divine and opens me up to what is sacred. It’s finally my turn to pay. The cashier now decides to take a break and the new cashier must change register drawers. I recite a mantra. Breathing in, I calm the mind and body. Breathing out, I release the frustration, heal my spirit and smile.

Workout Model Suffering builds strength of character and spirit. A customer just before me has misread the sale sign but still insists on being right. This is spiritual training, strengthening me for future trials. The cashier calls for a price check, but no one responds. The cashier leaves the register to personally check on the price. I accept this challenging situation because the gods would not have given me more than I can handle. The cashier returns; the customer demands to speak to the manager. I think the gods have overestimated me.

Compassionate Model Suffering creates a kinder and more understanding person. I feel sorry for cashiers who have to deal with rude customers talking on their phones and treating them like non-entities. I’m indebted to this experience for teaching me the value of compassion. After all, how can we truly know kindness if there were no uncaring, selfish human beings in the world to show us the opposite? I am not alone in my suffering; I feel a bond with the cashier. I make sure I greet my cashier. WE>I.

Magical Curse Model The one causing me to suffer will get it worse in the end. The anguish I’m experiencing becomes pleasurable when I think of how much worse it will be for the one afflicting me now. A customer has ignored the 10-item limit sign at the checkout. This same person took up two parking stalls in front of the store. Who does this person think (s)he is? This person will suffer greatly in hell. I somehow feel better now.

Ultimate Plan Model There is a reason for my suffering greater than I can understand. I couldn’t find parking, I chose the shopping cart with a broken wheel, and after all this the item I came to buy is gone. Though life goes in mysterious ways, I’m secure in the thought that there is a greater plan and things will somehow work out in the end.

Grateful Model My suffering cannot compare to the suffering the founder of my faith endured for me. No matter that the cashier happily chatted away with a co-worker and did not bother to acknowledge me throughout the entire transaction. The world did not acknowledge the founder of my faith either and rejected him outright. Had he not suffered in the way he did, my current situation would be hopeless. I embrace my suffering for sake of the founder of my faith and I’m thankful for the chance to experience a little of what he went through. My pain binds me to my god.

The above models offer different lines of understanding for moving from incomprehensible pain and frustration to meaningful suffering. With proper faith, meaning is possible in and through pain. When it comes to seeking relief from my own suffering, I believe I’m waiting in the right line.

Jay Sakashita teaches religion courses at Leeward Community College and UH-Manoa.