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.