Suffering Footprint: The reason I re-purposed my life.
This post is about an inherent flaw in life, the problems it causes, and my story of coming face to face with this flaw and my path to a solution.
It was around the end of 2010, when I started giving some serious thought to committing suicide. I wasn’t feeling depressed. I wasn’t broke. Actually, quite the opposite. I’d achieved everything I’d set out to achieve materially, and more. I’d have been able to continue my comfortable lifestyle, without having to work for it, till the day I died. So, something inside me kept asking me “why wait”?
I was made to talk with my physician, and although he didn’t have an answer for me, he did have these pills. The side effects — depression and suicidal thoughts. I steered clear of these pills.
A year passed by, and this discomfort I had with my comfortable life, grew into an angst. Every day that I lived, I was just making up an excuse to not kill myself. I was too attached to my life!
Now, I knew that you can find solutions to a lot of things, if you think long and hard enough. So that’s what I did, and, I realized what was bothering me was the “suffering footprint” of my existence.
So what exactly is Suffering Footprint?
This is the inherent flaw in life I’d referred to earlier.
To live we need to consume. Consumption requires production. And it seems that every act of production causes someone to suffer somewhere. Suffer, as in experience unwanted physical pain.
Sometimes this suffering is clearly visible, like in the case of meat production, and slightly hidden away for things like dairy and eggs, and a few more steps removed for most other things.
I started looking at how things that I consumed regularly, are produced. The number of organisms — from earthworms to human — that suffer to produce even a bowl of rice, is immense. Farm land comes from clear cutting forests, taking away home from all the birds and other animals that lived there. Then the land is flooded, drowning and killing a lot of small animals that live under the surface. In small farms, a bull is used to pull the plough.
It’s not an easy job to pull the heavy plough through 6 inches of mud. If you’ve ever had your flip-flop stuck in the mud, you can maybe relate a little. Most old bulls die doing this work. Then, there are countless earthworms and insects that get crushed to death in the process. It’s not an easy way to go. And, this is just the production.
Then, there is the harvesting, milling, packaging and the supply chain required to get the rice to me. This involves a huge industrial complex of factories, storage facilities, and transportation. All of this is powered by mining for metals, coal and petroleum at the very minimum. Which in turn has a horrible impact on the environment, and all human and non-human animals in it.
This was a paralyzing thought, especially for someone who considered themselves to be a good person. I completely believed in “do no harm”. And here I was, harming by the virtue of just being an ordinary consumer.
I wasn’t a bad person. My apathy had stemmed from believing that being happy is the purpose of life, and that it can be achieved by consuming.
Growing up, like most people I was vulnerable. I had my insecurities, a need for acceptance and a desire to be happy. I did what I saw the good looking, confident, happy people on television did. I ate like them. I drank what they drank. I smoked what they smoked. I even tried to look like they did.
“Consuming” is what I’d been told, or rather sold, was the path to happiness — the way to live.
Now, the spell had broken, and I realized not only had consumerism failed to deliver on its promise, but it had me cause all this suffering too as I’d been consuming ovelooking its impact on others.
Realizing that for my indulgences, others had to suffer, I started moving away from unnecessary consumption. Unnecessary being desire driven, instead of being need based. So it’s not like I stopped eating or drinking, but I stopped drinking alcohol. I reduced indulging including traveling without purpose, reduced smoking cigarettes … and other interesting herbs. By reducing my consumption I was reducing my suffering footprint.
Fast forward a little; I was now a conscious consumer. I bought used clothes, books and furniture, and I had turned vegan — not eating meat , eggs or dairy.
Still, I was using my privilege of being an able-bodied, resourceful human being to live a life where I sought comfort, convenience and pleasure, above everything else.
Reducing my consumption was just half the battle. I could lower my consumption all I wanted, but there was no way I could eliminate it.
Even for me to live just meeting my basic needs, I had to consume knowing fully well that others had to suffer for that. If for me to live, others had to suffer and even die, then it followed that my life wasn’t just mine, it came after all at a cost to others.
I had reduced the impact I caused by my actions, but if I didn’t do something with my life beneficial for others, then even that in-action also had a suffering footprint.
I did not like this conclusion one bit, but “not liking” was not a valid reason to reject it.
So back to thinking about suicide. Up until this point, realistically, the only reason I’d been living was because I was born. I’d no say in that matter, but continuing to live was a choice. If I took myself out of the system, the system of suffering would have still continued as there are billions of other consumers. So a better value proposition was for me to live and work against suffering. Basically, re-purpose my life. For the first time in my life, Instead of living because I was born or too attached to my life, I chose to live. Chose to live deliberately and make my life matter.
My life mantra became — consume only to live, live only to help reduce suffering. Just like comfort, convenience and pleasure served as a yardstick for making life decisions until this point, suffering footprint became the yardstick this point on.
So why chose physical pain as a parameter for suffering? I’d chosen to focus on pain as everyone (sans a few masochists) try to avoid unncessary pain — irrespective of caste, culture, color, gender, nationality or even species. The experience of physical pain is one of the common shared experience that all organisms avoid.
From an earthworm to a dog to a goat to a cow to a human being, everyone avoids unwanted physical pain.
If pain unnecessary to the being undergoing that experince is an absolute bad, then reducing it becomes absolutely good.
I started turning my life around. Willing to reduce one vice at a time … helping one being at a time. Initially, just the stray dogs I saw in the street. It wasn’t anything grand. Feeding them, and taking them to a vet if I saw one injured. Learning some basic first aid.
I didn’t have any misgivings. I knew, that for every one I was helping, there were millions I wasn’t. But pain is experienced on an individual level, so each one that I helped mattered.
Trying to stop overconsumption, and trying to help others…they go hand in hand, as you can spend time on one or the other. Focusing on something bigger than yourself also helps you climb out of this bottomless pit that you are trying to fill with one form of consumption or the other.
The joy & tranqulity I got from this was much more fulfilling and lasting, than the fleeting pleasures I got from chasing one new experience after the other.
I had found this new template for living my life, which not only reduced my suffering footprint, but also brought me joy. I know knew what to live for, and how to live. But changing how you live changes the questions you ask.
Now I was asking, How do I share this, and how do I scale this. Back to thinking long and hard, but this time the answer came quickly. One question answered the other. Sharing it is scaling it.
That’s when I started Peepal Farm.
It is a house which has a clinic instead of a master bedroom; it has a cow shed instead of a swimming pool; it has space for us to organically farm, while reducing our harm. We help injured stray animals, mostly dogs, cats, cows and mules — people eat most other animals, which is why you won’t find stray goats, chickens, pigs or buffaloes.
I wanted people to have a taste of “how doing good, feels great”. So we’ve space for people to visit, volunteer and get involved and be inspired. We’ve now had close to 400 volunteers from all over the world, and when they brush a dog and and then they brush a cow, the imaginary boundaries they have between companion animals — not okay to eat — and farm animals — okay to eat … they begin to blur.
Everybody has a different take home though— some people, especially from Indian cities, go back and put a doormat out for a homeless dog to have a warm place to sleep on a cold winter night, a bowl of water on a hot summer day. Some people quit eating animals. Some reduce their dairy consumption. A few have even quit their corporate jobs and started working with small non-profits.
The influence of all this did not stay contained in the farm, it spilled over in ways we didn’t plan for. Neighborhood kids started hanging out at the farm, practising their English, and even helping with rescues. Couple of young guys who were initially helping build the farm, joined as part of the rescue team and can now even do minor surgeries if need be. The veggie vendors started giving us old veggies for cows. One guy in the village gave us land so we could grow grass for cows. More girls in the village now know how to Google.
Changing my lifestyle and life’s objective was a struggle, but not as hard as I thought it would be. See, our brains are used to making decisions based on what we think eventually will make us feel good. And for over three decades I had associated “feeling good” with seeking comfort, convenience, and pleasure.
So it was somewhat hard making decisions based on what I now rationally knew to be good, instead of what felt good … as I was operating on sheer will power, and it’s a little draining.
The key is practise, and patience. I took almost three years to get over the hump, and it was exercising my will power for one small decision at a time. Now on most days, doing good is what feels good and it’s not that difficult anymore.
On other days — well, there are simpler pleasures.