There is a story early in the Old Testament of the Bible called the story of Cain and Abel. This is a multi-layered story that explains much about human suffering. The story goes that two of the original humans in the Judo-Christian tradition (Adam and Eve) had two children after getting evicted from the Garden of Eden. The children’s names were Cain and Abel. Cain grew up to be a farmer, and Abel was a shepherd. Both were brought up by their parents to worship the Jewish God and to sacrifice a portion of their crops/herd to God in gratitude of their prosperity. Abel was faithful and sacrificed the best of his herd while Cain was a little more frugal and only offered the remnants of his crop.
Abel prospered and Cain did not, purportedly because God was pleased with Abel and not pleased with Cain because of the quality of their respective sacrifices. Out of jealousy and victimhood, Cain killed his brother. God came calling and asked Cain where his brother was and Cain said the famous words “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God cursed Cain and sentenced him to a life of suffering.
At first blush this sounds a bit harsh for those looking for compassion in their lives, but this story is rich in explanation of so much that is happening in our lives and correctly identifies the source of all suffering. It is based on an ancient cosmic law, which is that for every action there is a reaction. In Buddhist terms, it is known as karma.
The story is man’s attempt to explain why suffering happens, but it is also divinely guided and much deeper than the surface level. It is actually an explanation of the origins of the split between Jews and the rest of the Middle East. And like most apologetic literature, it blames the split on God.
However on a deeper level the story explains the concept and consequences of a spiritual concept called Separation Consciousness. In modern spiritual thinking, separation consciousness is the illusion that we are separate from each other and what we think, do, say or feel has no direct effect on other human beings. According to Buddha, this is the cause of much suffering for ourselves and for those we don’t think we can affect. The story of Cain and Abel echoes this teaching.
To understand this deeper level of the story, we need to use some different labels. Instead of Cain, use “mind or intellect” and instead of Abel, use “heart” and see where the story goes. The story line would read that when the mind kills the heart, we are cursed. I believe this explains every aspect of human suffering. The intellect is always seeking to analyze, get a better deal, compare, judge and condemn. The heart only loves and does not care about material possessions.
So on an individual level the story admonishes us to love and not be consumed by our mind’s inherent need to compare ourselves to others, to judge and feel victimized. The answer to “am I my brother’s keeper” is Yes! Not only do we suffer when we ignore the principles of love to material success, so does everyone else. When we look at the rich people of the world, they are not happy, they only desire more and more. As a result, resources are misallocated and the whole world suffers. Our heart constantly cries for us to help others and to sacrifice ourselves to the greater good of the world. That is our natural way of being. Another way of looking at it is that we are our brother.
If you don’t like the word “sacrifice”, use the word “share”. If you don’t like the word “God”, use the word “world”. Scientists are beginning to find scientific evidence that even thoughts can change the molecular structure of things. When the world comes and asks the metaphorical question, “are you taking care of each other”, and we have been killing each other with hate, revenge, pollution and selfishness, we will be cursed. History has proven that to us time and time again, and we still do not learn the lesson.
The moral of the story is that we are responsible for each other. No exceptions. When we give our best, we will be rewarded, no matter what it is we are giving. This is Abel/heart’s gift. When we give resentfully our leftovers, we will suffer. So when was the last time you spent time with your family, both biological and community? When was the last time you gave something to someone you didn’t know? When we are giving, we are in our heart. When we are taking, we are in our heads.
The beginning of the story was that Adam and Eve had children immediately after being evicted from the Garden of Eden. That was because they ate of the Tree of Knowledge. So the whole metaphor is concerned with the consequences of the competition of intellect versus intuition, head versus heart.