Some twenty five hundred years ago, a Hebrew poet wrote a remarkable parable about suffering. You can find it in the Old Testament as the Book of Job. There is little in the narrative to suggest where to place Job in terms of our modern geography. (Mind you the Old Testament is notoriously unreliable about such things! As I recall, Job was supposed to have lived in the lost land of Uz – not to be confused with Oz – but more likely in my mind to be aligned to the land of Us!) There seems to be nothing in the story to connect Job with the history of Israel as it is related in the other books of the Old Testament. All we can be sure of is that he worshipped the same god that is the centrepiece of these scriptures. Despite the fact that his god has caused him to suffer relentlessly and refuses to show his face when Job seeks an explanation for his trials, his belief is maintained. More than that, he is resolute in his faith that the world is good because a good god created it. Job seems to have been sustained in his trials by a belief that irrespective of his suffering life was still meaningful.
More than five hundred years after Job, the Greek Stoics seemed to have come to a similar conclusion. A core Stoic principle is that misfortune cannot diminish happiness. It is no accident that Stoicism arose when it did. The historian Richard Schoch maintains, “We can hardly be surprised that it has been the philosophy of choice for good people in an age of despots.
Fittingly, Stoicism had its foundations in hardship. The original Stoic was Zeno of Cittium. On a maritime voyage he was shipwrecked, causing him to lose all his possessions. His response to this situation was to proclaim, calmly, “Fortune bids me to be less encumbered”. Fortunately he clambered ashore near Athens where he spent the next fifty years of his life until his death in 262 BC.
Zeno believed that a person’s wellbeing must be based on reason, not pleasure. It was important that a citizen should not ignore their duties and they must meet their obligations to society. Stoicism repudiates the power of a brutal world to make anyone unhappy. So to the Stoics, wellbeing was attainable by anybody irrespective of their circumstances, but that was not to say its attainment was easy. The Stoics also believed, as eventually Job did also, that misfortune is not a punishment for moral failing. That added strength to their belief that even if the moral suffer they still have access to an enduring state of wellbeing.
If we move forward another five or six hundred years to the foothills of the Himalayas to modern day Nepal, we find another sage, the once Prince Siddhartha Gautama, known in history as the Buddha. He too was concerned with human suffering. After his enlightenment he preached the Four Noble Truths which he maintained provided a solution to the suffering of humankind.
Without going into details the four noble truths have sometimes been called:
- The Truth of Suffering
- The Truth of Arising
- The Truth of Cessation
- The Truth of the Path
The Buddha identifies the principal affliction of human beings is suffering which is a natural part of life and in essence something we all have to contend with. He identifies the root cause of suffering is desire or attachment. He then asserts that suffering can end and prescribes the path we must take to end it. Suffering is ameliorated when we learn detachment. This is not an easy lesson and cultivating the mind through meditation and mindfulness is promoted as the solution.
Human suffering seems inevitable. Even the powerful, the wealthy and the famous are forced to endure it. That, of course, is not to say that it is evenly distributed. Some, like Job, must endure suffering way beyond that which most of us encounter. Inevitably, human beings are defined by how we deal with it.
In modern times there have been few events as horrendous and suffering inducing as the holocaust. During World War II, between about 1941 and 1945 the Nazis murdered some six million Jews. They gathered them together, men, women and children, in concentration camps where they lived in horrific conditions and were systematically put to death. Whilst the victims were predominantly Jews, – Slavs, homosexuals, communists and others were sought out and similarly disposed of. In total as many as eleven million people may have died as a result of this horrific crime against humanity.
One who survived the horrors of the concentration camps (he was indeed a survivor of perhaps the worst, Auschwitz) was the famed Viennese psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl. Frankl, drawing on this experience, wrote his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. It fell to him, because of his medical training, to try to care as best he could for the camp’s occupants. He related how some, despite the dreadful privations, maintained a sense of dignity and compassion.
“We who lived in the concentration camps, can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In trying to make sense of this experience, he formulated a new approach to psychology, which he called logotherapy. He denied that we were principally motivated in our behaviour by Freud’s “pleasure principle”. He also contested the beliefs of Adler and the emphasis he put upon the status drive. According to Frankl, the principal driver of human behaviour is what he termed the “Will to Meaning”.
Anticipating the work of the modern positive psychology movement, he also postulated that happiness was not something that could be pursued directly. In his book, The Will to Meaning, he wrote:
“Normally pleasure is never the goal of human strivings but rather is and must remain, an effect, more specifically the side effect of attaining a goal. Attaining the goal constitutes a reason for being happy. In other words, if there is a reason for happiness, happiness ensues, automatically and spontaneously as it were. And that is why one need not pursue happiness, one need not care for it once there is a reason for it.”
For Frankl the goal was a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Indeed, if we go back to his experience in the concentration camps, he postulated that those who managed the impacts of the horrors and the suffering best were those who did have a sense of meaning and purpose.
Of course this notion had been anticipated by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote:
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
To my mind, and I have written of it elsewhere, Nietzsche and Frankl had in fact identified our spiritual needs. In the long term our spiritual needs have greater impact on our wellbeing than even our physical and social needs. They arise because, as the good Dr Phil and I pointed out in our book Humanity at Work, we are more than just bodies and minds.
In more recent times, the psychiatrist and author, M Scott Peck, began his influential little book The Road Less Travelled with this statement:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Despite the fact that Peck was a Christian this statement is almost Buddhist in its sentiment. Christians, in particular, with their notion of an omniscient, omnipotent and loving god have struggled to understand how such a god might allow “bad things to happen to good people”.
But the universe seems to deal out suffering in an arbitrary way. How else to explain those who are victims of natural disasters or who are struck down by incurable diseases like cancer?
The measure of a person is largely determined by how they deal with this. The best of us, probably because as Frankl maintains they have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, carry on with courage and dignity. The best of us, also, instead of being bitter, learn important lessons from our suffering. Many of those whose characters we admire have been shaped by suffering. Not falling prey to victimhood they have made good use of their lessons.
I pray, as much as possible, that you may be spared from suffering. But if life’s lottery falls badly for you there are two things I would wish for you. Firstly, do not be misled into believing your suffering is somehow a result of your own moral failing. Secondly, accept the learning opportunity it provides and in the words of the good Dr Phil, “Make sure you come out better and not bitter!”