How do we deal with suffering? It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about yet still don’t have a good answer. To say that we all suffer in some way seems so obvious that it hardly needs to be said. Yet when we see the person who has the things we want, the life we envy, it’s harder to feel that in our gut. To each of us our own suffering can seem so isolating. As though we are the only one having those kids of feelings. But I still believe it’s true. Some of that suffering is self-imposed. Some comes about from living in the world.
What good is suffering? I don’t know. I’m not going to insult those going through sincere hardship by saying it’s good for a person. I don’t know that to be true. I won’t say that no one is given more suffering than they can bear. That is blatantly false and the rate of suicide bears a frightening witness to that fact. I will say that I don’t think we can fully escape suffering, though we may be able to reduce the self-imposed type. I think it’s an unfortunate, but inevitable feature of the world. The philosopher Alan Watts describes our (unrealistic) desire to live in a world of winning without losing. We want a world of only good, but not bad. It’s a simplified version of what many think heaven to be. Of course we all want that, but what would that actually be like? Without losing there is no winning. The game we are playing would have no meaning without the ability to lose. We can’t have a thing like winning without losing. Just like we can’t have white without black, up without down, or life without death as Alan Watts says. There is a give and take, back and forth to everything in the world. Suffering and pleasure are no different. That doesn’t make the things we consider negative any easier however, just an inevitable part of the way things function.
I’m not sure whether this idea is comforting or not. It feels like an adequate explanation for the way things exist, but I don’t necessarily have to like it. It doesn’t give me any comfort when I think of my family or friends dying or suffering. I would like to have children someday and the thought of them dying fills me with an indescribable dread. Knowing that possibility is just the way the world works doesn’t comfort me. But it is more palatable than having to constantly justify the question “why me?” There is no why except because. When a tiger attacks someone we don’t blame the tiger (not rational people anyway). The tiger is doing what a tiger does. There is no blame to be placed. In much the same way when suffering comes about there is no blame to place on the universe or some deity. We live in a world of good and bad. The good and bad rarely come to us in evenly balanced measures. And we can’t have the good without the bad. They are part of each other. A world of only good ceases to be good with nothing to contrast it with. A bland uniformity would be just as, if not more, torturous.
I don’t quite consider myself a Buddhist, but I would say I’m Buddhist-leaning. I think the description Buddhism of the world in that we all experience suffering is borne out by experience. I do believe we have the ability to reduce our self-imposed suffering in the way that Buddha recommends. That is to try to stop grasping at things through holding on to our desires. We want an outcome so badly that we anticipate it and make ourselves anxious, suffering. The event happens and the outcome isn’t what we wanted so we are devastated, suffering. Then after the fact we constantly look back at the thing that didn’t turn out the way we wanted and feel sad, suffering. It’s a natural course of events, but it’s also the main way we experience suffering. The way out of this particular form of suffering is to give up clinging to desire. That’s obviously easier said than done of course. We hold so tightly onto a thought that we choke it to death. Even something “positive” when clung to overly vigorously will result in suffering. Whether it’s a thorny weed or a rose, grasping it tightly will result in getting pricked.
Can we grow because of suffering? Absolutely. Some of the times I have grown the most were preceded by incredible suffering in my life. Having already gone through those times I can be glad for the growth, but I stop short of being glad for the suffering. If I was given the chance to avoid the suffering and the resultant growth I don’t know what choice I would make. It’s in the past so it’s somewhat easier to accept it as something that is done. But there are still things that haunt me. Growth or not, I might be better off having not gone through them. I have no way of knowing. They’re all what-ifs. There isn’t a hypothetical decision machine in which we can play out the infinite possibilities to see which one we like best and run with them. We are stuck in the timeline we are stuck in. So we’re left to deal with the suffering we’ve been through and accepting the consequences of it, hopefully getting something positive at the end of it. Again, I won’t say suffering is justified because of some formula in which suffering plus time equals good things at the end. Life doesn’t work that way. It seems to come down to making the best of the situation as it is. Suffering or not.