Beyond Suffering

I felt compelled to write this post because of a conversation I had yesterday with fellow blogger, Gabriela. In responding to issues I raised in a recent post on religion and personality, she asked me how I felt about the notion that “life is suffering,” especially as it relates to the central meaning I ascribe to life. In drafting my response, I realized I had a great deal more to say on the subject than would be appropriate for a comments section. And I would like to share it with all of you. I also ask that you interpret my rhetorical style in this post as just that—a strategy for making the content stronger and more impactful. What I don’t want is for you to think I’m trying to impose my views on you or shape how you think. These thoughts are my own, and I hope you find something of value in this discussion. As always, thank you for reading.

The notion that life is suffering is too negative. It isn’t wrong. It’s just incomplete. Suffering is but one aspect of a much greater, more complex mystery. Suffering is not an end. It is sometimes a beginning. It is an unfortunate, often painful, intermediary. But, in no way does it represent the core meaning I ascribe to life. Life is a miracle. Plain and simple. For reasons I will never understand, and according to a set of divine laws none of us will likely ever know, suffering seems to be a necessary part of the miracle of life. But it’s not what life’s about. It’s not a purpose. And it’s not a goal. Not to me.

The vast majority of our suffering comes from having unrealistic attitudes about life. We expect the world to be kind. We often imagine that if we do all the right things, we and our loved ones will remain safe, healthy, and happy. That, of course, isn’t so. Sometimes bad things happen. To all of us. And there is simply nothing we can do about it. Then, as I see it, we suffer twice: once because of the bad thing that’s happened—a kind of natural, compulsory suffering—and again because of a false expectation that everything is supposed to be okay. In this case, to envision life as suffering can be a liberation from the second malady: the false belief. And it might help you deal with the first, even help you become, as Gabriela suggested to me, a more compassionate and empathetic person. 

It is, I think, important to be realistic about the presence of suffering in our lives, but it is not okay to make a life there. Because just past the lens of suffering lies the greatest miracle of all. And if you never move beyond suffering, you’ll never have the eyes to see it.  Now, I’m not going to pretend I understand the why or how of any of this. That’s best left to God. But what limited knowledge and experience I do have tell me that life is miraculous and the universe overwhelmingly benevolent, even loving, beyond anything we can fathom. And it lies waiting for us just beyond our suffering.

To be clear, miraculous doesn’t mean all positive or all good. It means awe-inspiring, wondrous in a way that strikes you deep in the core of your being and elevates your spirit. It is the sunshine on your face. The feeling of cool air hitting your lungs. The way your body pounds the pavement when you run and the feeling of sweat dripping down your skin. The birds and the butterflies as they greet you when you walk out the door on a hot summer day. The miraculous usually feels good, harmonious, loving, or sublime, but we can’t exclude from it nature’s wickedness. A snake attacking a bird’s nest. A dog being wounded by a coyote. Or a loved one having an accident or being diagnosed with an illness. Nature is inherently miraculous, and suffering, for reasons unknown, is part of that miracle. To understand suffering this way—not as an end in itself, but as a requirement for being part of the miracle of life—can help us maintain perspective in times of adversity and not fall victim to our own suffering. 

Now, I’d like to tell you a story. A few years ago, while visiting the Serengeti, I witnessed something very powerful. The scene was a field full of wildebeest with a great lion laying right in the middle of it, a half-eaten wildebeest carcass strewn in bits behind him. The rest of the herd were going about their daily business resting and feeding. The lion sprawled out in the center of the action, peacefully and contentedly full. This was not suffering. In fact, despite the massive struggle and violence that had obviously taken place moments before, this scene was the opposite of suffering. It was one of the most miraculous things I had ever seen.

And it taught me more about life than any philosophy book I’ve ever read. Nature is full of conflict. Nature is a constant cycle of birth and death. But it is also cause to rejoice. I don’t know why. I only know that to be in it—to really be immersed in the wonders of nature—makes my spirit soar, fills me with awe, humility, and gratitude. Makes me worshipful. Makes me happy to be alive. Even though nature is riddled with tragedy. And sometimes I am part of that tragedy. In the end, we all will be. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop being part of the miracle of life. Or that we shouldn’t give ourselves permission to celebrate that miracle: to step out into the sunshine and let our hearts be light. Too often, we get caught up in our own suffering—feeling like it’s the beginning and end of everything—that we fail to see the miracle on our doorstep.

It is, therefore, my view that our limited understanding turns life into suffering. Our notions of what should and should not be that often cause us more pain than is necessary. Nature continues to teach me that the universe operates by a set of laws I know nothing about. Only occasionally am I lucky enough to a catch a glimpse. What we call tragedy is part of the miracle. And for reasons we must accept we will never understand. But we should still feel blessed to be a part of it.

That is, in fact, the greatest lesson nature has taught me. Feel blessed to be a part of it. Because it is tremendous. Thoreau had it right when he said, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” It is by the lightness of our being, by the elevation of our spirits, that we know we are part of a mystery that’s inherently loving. Even when it doesn’t seem fair. Even when it’s painful beyond recognition. Beyond our capacities for coping, for caring, for wanting to survive. The miracle is still there. It’s right in front of us everyday. I think of Jesus as I write this. And for a moment I envision his resurrection as the miracle beyond suffering, much as I believe our perception of life must not stop at suffering. The miracle is always just beyond the gates.

17 responses to “Beyond Suffering”

  1. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you decided to post this. I have been thinking about your comments all weekend, and I wasn’t sure whether to save them so that I’d be able to go back to them later. But now there’s a whole post about it! Yay!

    Can I just play the skeptic part a little, though? On the best of days I will think and feel like you have described here, as being part of the miracle of life. And even on some of my worst days I remember that I could still experience that painful beauty in ways that I hadn’t done before. It was almost as if the hurt had increased my sensitivity to my surroundings and experiences so that every ounce of beauty could be magnified manifold.

    But between these extreme states, I – like many of us – will not feel that miraculous, will not experience what you referred to as a “religious attitude.” If I were to read this during a bout of depression, I am pretty sure that I would not be able to find solace in this. It is the sort of thinking one develops after loss and hurt, but which one often forgets – and cannot relate to – in the midst of suffering.

    Perhaps the key to this is to build this religious attitude as a muscle when life is good(-ish), as a habit of gratitude, awe and curiosity to one’s surroundings. And as acceptance that there’s plenty of pain to go around, too, even if we’re currently removed from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, now you’ve inspired me to write another post about the habits and rituals that sustain this religious attitude for me. (I’ll probably publish it tomorrow.) And you are absolutely right when you say it’s something we need to build like a muscle. That’s what makes it work when we need it.

      There is sometimes a very short distance between the good within ourselves and the bad or destructive. An alarmingly short distance. So, too, is it with perception and attitude. Carl Jung describes the Self as being akin to a vantage point within the personality. When we are integrated, we see the world as if through different eyes. Maslow says the same of the self-actualized person. But, I think we can also slip backwards sometimes, too, into old, unproductive ways of seeing—although I am not sure we ever slip all the way. The adage “use it or lose it” very much applies here. It is vital to develop habits that help us sustain this kind of attitude in times of crisis. Saying, “Suffer but be happy anyway” doesn’t always cut it for me either. A lot of that has to do with the degree to which I am practicing what I preach.

      What’s interesting: When times are good, I seem to be perfectly free go about my business messing up my perspective, developing bad habits, and getting into moods and fits about whatever I so choose. But I noticed something: When things are bad—that’s when this attitude saves me. It’s instinctual. I go into what I call “self-protective” mode. I just know. And I know what I need to do to take care of myself before I collapse into a bout of depression. Before I feel disoriented, overwhelmed, or on the brink of self-destruction. It’s like I reach a point, an emotional point, at which something inside of me says, “stop.” And instead of reaching for things that are bad for me, I reach for things that are good. Carl Jung also believed that the unconscious has the power to heal. That is a fact—and that in itself is miraculous beyond words. But we have got to help it along. That is the importance of building this core attitude like a muscle. Then, per your example, you wouldn’t have to be on the internet when you’re depressed, reading my blog and searching for answers. 😉

      Now, you also say that we only experience the miraculous as a result of extreme emotional states. No! It’s the opposite! Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” That’s the key to it. The key to the whole thing. You have to be able to see the miraculous in the everyday. It’s right there. It’s right there in front of us all the time just waiting for us to notice it. Matthew 13:13: “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” I love to hike. On every mountaintop, I believe I catch a glimpse of the divine. The elation I experience, the intense feelings of connectedness and harmony probably constitute what Maslow calls a peak experience. But I don’t climb mountains everyday to find miracles. The single best thing you can do if you want to see miracles all around you is to make them yourself. Maslow describes a phenomenon called “self-actualizing creativity.” That is the key to the whole thing. Elevate the simple things and they become gifts. And this feeling of gratitude will multiply for you in ways you can’t imagine. If you’re going to cook, make it ritual. Put on some music (dancing, optional) and make the most delicious, most inspired soup there ever was. Then feed the people you love. Make something with your hands. Walk outside, stop to feel the sunshine on your face, and say “thank you.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, if you keep this up I’ll have to add “muse to theusedlife” to my resume.

        A friend was telling me a few months ago – and I agreed with him – that we already know what’s good for us (nature, connection/relationships, wholesome food, good sleep, exercise etc.) and that all this search for solutions and answers is essentially fruitless. Both at a conscious level (based on science) and at an intuitive level we already know these things. Yet, for whatever reason, we don’t do them.

        I’ll have to look into “self-actualizing creativity”, it does sound like the way out of an existential rut. I think creativity forces us to look at things from a different perspective, and that’s enough to get us out of our prison-minds. Plus, I noticed that novelty is like a jolt to the brain – it wakes it up and lets in all these new associations and avenues of exploration, like a gust of fresh air. (so maybe I SHOULD read you when feeling depressed!)

        Anyway, I’ll leave you with this very touching story from the NY Times about a happiness researcher whose work couldn’t save him from himself:

        Reading it brought tears to my eyes. There are so many people like him out there, trying hard to make sense of life, trying to get better, trying, trying, trying… and yet that pain follows them everywhere. Change is slow, and change is difficult, and for whatever reason, they cannot shake the belief that their lives are meaningless.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is what Maslow says about self-actualizing creativity: “I found it necessary to distinguish ‘special talent creativeness’ from ‘self-actualizing (SA) creativeness’ which sprang much more directly from the personality, and which showed itself widely in the affairs of life, for instance, in a certain kind of humor. It looked like a tendency to do anything creatively: e.g., housekeeping, teaching, etc…Such people can see the fresh, the raw, the concrete, the ideographic, as well as the generic, the abstract, the rubricized, the categorized, and the classified. Consequently, they live far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalized world of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes…”

        That’s what this all boils down to, isn’t it? Perception. I can tell you until I’m blue in the face, as the saying goes, that there are miracles all around you, but if you can’t see them yourself, it’s no good. Like the field of wildebeest I described above—I could either focus my sights on the dead animal’s suffering or I could see a miraculous and inexplicable kind of harmony that included elements of suffering. Some of this is a choice. Some of it, I think, is nature. But even though good, lasting changes in perception might be more difficult to achieve for some people than for others, I believe firmly that we’re all capable.

        About 20 years ago, I experienced a bout of depression myself. It was a dark time in my life, and after it ended, I swore to myself I would never allow it to happen again. And it didn’t. And it won’t. My perspective on life is now so radically different from the way it was 20 years ago that I don’t recognize the person I used to be. I don’t look like her anymore. And I am grateful for that.

        When I read the article you sent me, I felt sad. One of the greatest tragedies of the human condition, as I see it, is how often we fall victim to our own faulty perceptions. Anyone who wants to move beyond suffering needs to change their perception. This isn’t a matter for the intellect. Rumination is not our friend here. Sitting around and trying to make meaning out of the inexplicable can absolutely drive us deeper into our own suffering, create its own special kind of chaos. In my opinion, what you need, ultimately, if you’re prone to falling victim to suffering/pain/meaninglessness is not a method of coping with the agony. It’s a buffer against it. Make yourself such that it won’t keep happening. To do that, you have to see the world differently. You have to affect your perception. For me, a major point of transition was doing everyday things creatively. Cooking, cleaning, working, exercising (which I think is inherently creative). I didn’t do it because I read Maslow. (I didn’t discover him in depth until just a few years ago.) It was intuitive. I did what came naturally. But the rewards were beyond anything I could have ever expected. It was like the whole world started opening up to me. I began seeing normal, everyday activities as gifts, as little causes for celebration. That might sound crazy to you, but to me, it was extraordinary. Your friend is right. We know what’s good for us. It’s the execution that’s often difficult.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It doesn’t sound crazy at all! It sounds like a dream come true, what we’re all ultimately after. I really appreciate you taking the time to write these long, thoughtful comments – they’re essays in their own right, deserving to be shared and posted.

        It’s true that you can’t change people just by telling them, but often times it’s enough just to show them that, hey, there’s another way to do this thing called “living.” That possibility is enough to open up new doors.

        Liked by 1 person

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