By Zach Van Houten
Suffering is one of the constants of life. It may be more acute for some than it is for others, but fundamentally it is shared by all beings.
What should our attitude be towards suffering? Should we despise it? Work with it? Deny it? Medicate it? Blame others for it?
Buddhism teaches that there is a path one can take (the Eightfold Path) that leads to the end of suffering. It is a very prescriptive concept of how we can take practical steps to overcome this ever-present aspect of our existence.
Christianity, especially Catholicism emphasizes the redemptive nature of suffering.; and how trials of many kinds can produce perseverance (James 1:2-4). The example of Christ’s passion is given to show what compassion and bravery looks like in the face of intense suffering.
Theodicy refers to the conundrum theologians face when they try to explain the reason God allows suffering. It is no easy matter to explain away, for example: rape, mutilation, torture, genocide, etc. It is especially difficult to hold that there is an all-powerful, loving being who is watching it all unfold and refusing to intervene to prevent the worst of events from occurring.
I personally find the idea of a all-powerful, all-loving being controlling and governing the world to be a relic of ancient thought, and a needlessly anthropomorphic way to view reality. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when considering the volume and severity of suffering on this planet. Something is obviously missing from the equation.
There are much more sophisticated philosophies regarding the true nature of existence, which can account for suffering in a more rational way. Once we remove the idea of a cosmic being actively controlling it all, we find that it is much easier to see that suffering is simply built into reality itself, not programmed into it by an outside agent.
We may not like that suffering exists, but it is much easier to accept that it is just a brute fact of life, much like physics is a facet of nature. Now the question remains, what is it’s purpose?
The idea of purpose is a tricky one. Because it implies intentionality. Rather than asking what the purpose of suffering is, I prefer to ask ‘how can we work with suffering?’ This gives us agency, and pushes us to form our own conclusions about what it means to us personally.
My life has involved a lot of suffering. I have struggled with depression for almost a decade, and even before that I was never what I would describe as happy. I had enough outlets when I was young to distract me from getting fully depressed, but at some point those distractions stopped working. Then I was faced with suffering in it’s raw form. Not just in myself, but in the world. It was like a car crash you can’t look away from.
I am doing much better now than I was in the first few years of depression. At the time it felt like the world was shaded gray, and I don’t remember any feelings of happiness. Just numb and dull, with a perpetual heavy, sinking feeling in my chest. It was truly hell for a while.
I learned to manage this, and over time worked up the energy to make life changes and grow. Life got a lot better. I still had a lot of emotional and psychological issues, but I was channeling my energy into productive things more than before.
I had decided when I first got depressed that I didn’t want to medicate myself. I wanted to beat depression. I wanted to understand it; to learn the mechanisms of this thing so that I could not only heal myself, but also help others. This journey has honestly made me a much better person than I was before I got sick. I believe that it has refined me. And though I am far from perfect, I feel extremely proud of the growth it has produced in me.
I feel that when the Buddhists talk about the end of suffering, it isn’t merely about suffering being bad. It is more about the completion of suffering; when it exhausts itself.
The truth is, most of the people I deeply respect have experienced a lot of suffering. There seems to be an initiation into the depths of pain and despair, which produces powerful and compassionate human beings.
In Buddhism the enlightened mind is likened to a diamond. Diamonds are formed by intense pressure in the heart of the earth. In the same way, we cannot be made beautiful unless we undergo testing and trials and traumas. The late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh referred to this truth when he said “No mud, no lotus.” And having been a peace activist in his home country during the Vietnam War, he had seen a lot of suffering firsthand.
I would never tell another person what suffering should mean to them. Their suffering may be too great for me to comprehend, and too tragic for me to properly empathize with. The way we choose to handle suffering is personal. But there is one thing that is obvious: by choosing to accept and work with our suffering, we increase our ability to grow as human beings and to develop our souls. This, I believe, we carry with us, beyond this lifetime.
Thank you for reading.