The Inevitability of Suffering

We all experience suffering and trauma in our lives. Some of us experience more suffering. Some experience more dramatic trauma. But it is an inevitable part of life.

Who among us can say they have been completely untouched by the terrible consequences of such natural events we have recently witnessed such as fire, floods, cyclones and earthquakes. Who among us has not been touched by a brush by ourselves or those we love with cancer. Can any of us say there is no one in our lives who hasn’t a disability, been impacted by an unfortunate accident, been afflicted by mental illness or been distressed by changes in their economic circumstances.

Distress and suffering are the inevitable attendants of life.

It always seems strange to me that when something goes wrong we seem quick to apply psychological counseling. We seem to want people to believe that the difficulties that we experience are somehow unusual and that we should therefore have expectations that life should naturally progress without trauma.

Unfortunately there is little evidence that psychological counseling provides any substantial benefits. And indeed for some people, going over the trauma exacerbates the problem. Counseling is a subject at the centre of considerable debate over the last 15 years or so, with some accusing its practitioners as being a part of a disaster industry, blundering in after a traumatic event, albeit with the best of intentions.

And you wonder how appropriate is counseling in some of the contexts you hear? For example, a couple of weeks ago a young man assaulted a woman overnight in the grounds of a school. The students from the school were offered counseling even though they did not witness the event and the victim did not seem to be known to them!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no doubts that counseling is an appropriate step for some of the more vulnerable of us under some circumstances. My principal concern is that we are conditioning our society to assume that the suffering and distress that inevitably occur in everyday life is somehow abnormal.

We are forgetting some of the lessons the ancients have taught us. Many of the ancient religions were founded on the necessity of explaining the despair of dealing with natural disasters or the horrors of war. The Lament of Ur written some four millennia ago invokes the god Enlil as having caused the hurricane that destroyed the famous old city just as in the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, Yahweh, the god of the Jews, is held responsible for causing Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem. Right throughout the ancient societies of Babylon, Hebrews and Greeks (and many others beside) humankind’s seemingly endless calamities were blamed on cruel and vengeful deities. And whilst today we need not blame our misfortunes on capricious gods and goddesses, we nevertheless still have to deal with calamity and suffering in our daily lives.

This parlous situation caused some pessimism amongst the ancients. If there was nothing that could be done to predict disaster and little likelihood that pleas to your particular deity could result in being spared there was little cause for optimism. One Mesopotamian in proclaiming his desperation and hopelessness is quoted as having written, “What is good for oneself may be offensive to one’s God. What in one’s heart seems despicable may be proper to one’s God.” What a dilemma? Attributing our disasters to the willful acts of a perverse deity seems to have caused as many problems as it solved.

The Hebrew wisdom tradition explained away our propensity to suffer by blaming Adam. Once he had eaten of the tree of the fruit of knowledge we were destined to a life of suffering and evil. In fact it seemed as though the Hebrew god expected us to suffer and tested us by imposing suffering on us. Of course Job is the most dramatic exemplar of this.

The pervasiveness of suffering does not exclude even the greatest of heroes. In the Iliad Homer causes Achilles to say, “…..weeping is cold comfort and does little good. We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very fabric of our lives.”

We could go on and examine more sources but I think I have sufficiently made the point that in ancient times people understood the inevitability of suffering. They tried to explain it by various religious and philosophical creations, few of which would be convincing to us today. But still the problem remains. Who can deny that every life must contend with suffering, disaster and calamity? Certainly many of our lives are more fortunate than our ancestors and as a result our sufferings are perhaps reduced – but they will never be removed.

Religion can be a great comfort to people and I am at pains normally not to have people disavow their beliefs if they are helpful to them. But it has a great propensity to engender guilt. If, for example, we look at Christianity, with the advent of the New Testament Christians have come to believe in a loving God (rather than the jealous, vindictive and punitive figure of the Old Testament.). Devout Christians do their best to act out the teachings of the church in their daily lives. But even the devout and the good are not immune to suffering and calamity. When things go wrong, they ask themselves, “What have I done to deserve this? Surely God must be punishing me for some spiritual shortcoming. I have brought it on myself because I am not devout enough.” The rationale is that if God is a loving God and I suffer misfortune then I am somehow deficient in His eyes.

This dilemma was also confronted by the Jewish society. Its manifestation was attempted to be dealt with (unsuccessfully in my opinion) by the Rabbi, Harold S Krushner who wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Krushner came to a realisation that his god was not omnipotent. He wrote:

“I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents and natural disasters because I realise that I gain but little and I lose so much when I blame God for these things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but can’t eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die.” Thus Krushner’s solution was to retreat to a God that was not omnipotent.

And that is the nub of the problem. We all live in a world where there are significant but a more or less random probability for us to have to deal with suffering and disaster. No amount of theological reasoning can resile from the fact that ordinary, decent, human beings can be assailed with disaster. Indeed what I am arguing is that we should expect it!

Voltaire put an opposing point of view to conventional Christianity. He thought suffering was inevitable and undiscriminating. In Candide, the hero starts off very optimistically (encouraged by his mentor Dr Pangloss) but eventually through his life experience comes to understand that human suffering is unavoidable. This is just the nature of the world and not some punishment inflicted on us because we haven’t met the irrational requirements of our particular god.

Buddhism, on the other hand, doesn’t relate our suffering to any god or philosophical system. In Buddhism, suffering (dukkha) just is. We are destined to suffer just as a consequence of the act of living. There is no attempt to blame tyrannical deities. However once we come to accept that fact there are techniques, largely related to the training of the mind that can help us put our suffering aside.

It is taught that there are three forms of dukkha.

The first is our common everyday suffering. This is the suffering associated with pain, illness, old age and death. This is the trauma accompanying floods, fires, accidents, starvation, violence and so on.

The second is the suffering of change. We yearn for the steadfast and reliable but finally come to see that life seldom offers us that. We become attached to things that are transient and ephemeral and then suffer at their passing. (I have written before about the dangers of attachment).

Finally there is the suffering that comes from ignorance. Suffering (mostly psychological) occurs when we don’t know and accept ourselves as we are and when our concept of the way the world is (our world view) is erroneous.

There is nothing in Buddhism that can help us much avoid the first class of suffering. If I have a headache, feel nauseous or stub my toe my spiritual practice is unlikely to help much to relieve the pain. Nor is it likely to help me avoid a natural disaster or an accident. It can however, help me endure the pain and increase my stoicism.

But the latter two classes of dukkha may be largely avoided. By eschewing attachment and by gaining a greater understanding of who we are and how the world is we will greatly reduce our likelihood of suffering from these causes.

Buddhism is not the only path to these realisations. However it seems to me the only spiritual tradition to have articulated these processes broadly, and to have done so for three millennia.

It has been very moving in the last month or so seeing people contend with their pain and their suffering resulting from an extraordinary array of natural disasters. I feel for them and their attempts to rebuild their lives after terrible losses and after great trauma. We have seen some marvelously resilient people who in the face of all the disaster were optimistic and hopeful. We saw others who at great personal risk helped others.

You will probably be getting tired of my quoting the good Dr Phil. But he says to me, “When you go through trauma, just make sure you come out better and not bitter.” And surely there is wisdom in that.

There is no doubt that suffering hurts, but it often educates as well. How many times have I heard people say something like, “Isn’t old Joe a nice guy – despite of all the things that have happened to him?”

My response is that old Joe is a nice guy because of all the things that have happened to him.

Life is a great teacher and our adversity provides our best lessons if we are open to learn them. And it would be the height of naivety to believe that there will be no adversity.

5 Replies to “The Inevitability of Suffering”

  1. Nothing personal to the people, but I place counsellors in the same category as personal trainers. Generally both prefessions (if you can call them that) take the high ground and come accross as being the exemplar of how you should be. They are well out of their league, and if they could even see this they would be at least one step in the right direction. They are in danger of causing and/or aggrevating an existing injury, and there should be tighter regulation and auditing of their practices.

  2. Matt, all the counsellors I know are consumate professionals and the got there via several years of university study. They are also supervised on the job initially via clynical supervisors, much like doctors who must do time a sregistrars before they can practice alone.

    My niece is a professional Personal Trainer, see, she too is also highly qualified.

    I suspect your comments refer to non-professionals masquerading as these professions.

  3. I received the following comment from Greg Brown who was having difficulty posting a comment.

    “I do not have very high regard for most psychologists. From personal experience most do far more harm than good. In fact apart from Phil Harker I have not come across one that I consider useful. The problem in the main is they are too nice. They empathize and sympathise about how terrible it must have been or still is and try and find causes in your past that you can come to terms with to fix the problem. It does not work. In reality what most people really need is someone to kick them back into the land of the living and that does not require someone with a University degree. Just force yourself or get some one else to force you to do and behave the way you did when you were well and you end up that way again. Focussing on your problems which is what normally happens with clinical help is completely counter productive. I know that people who are feeling dreadful with aching necks and shoulders, back muscles that lock up involuntarily, panic attacks and palpitating hearts find it very hard to believe there is an easy solution like this (I have been there) but there is. It just takes time and discipline to make yourself do what you always did when you were well, while your whole being is crying out to do the opposite. Psychologists need to be more like old-school head masters and less like air hostesses. Perhaps I simplify things too much and assume one size fits all, regardless I have seen plenty of people get worse with professional help.”

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