Sages and ancient thinkers didn’t always agree. But they did decide that life is suffering. The bad news for us is that they weren’t being too harsh or looking at life incorrectly. Even if you’re doing OK now, suffering will happen eventually. It could come in the form of a lost job, a terminal illness, or another unfortunate life event. But until then, suffering is likely already in arm’s reach of you. Nearly all of us have someone in our close circle that’s battling a disease or serious issue. Some people are fortunate and avoid all of these situations, but the constant backdrop of finding meaning in life can serve as an existential dread that is suffered through.
It isn’t easy being us humans. It’s complicated. We’re battling external forces we can’t predict or control, and our internal lives, which we often don’t understand, constantly throw us for loops.
If our lot is filled with suffering, the best way to combat it is to find meaningful engagement with the world. (Preferably meaningful, because even those suffering in non-meaningful ways will admit that they are engaged, though meaning could come later on as a result of enduring suffering. Nonetheless, it does reason that engagement is better than the lack thereof, because meaning is a source of life, and suffering can transform us toward a road of meaning. As C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” So without suffering or meaning, there is no life.)
There are a number of ways to meaningfully engage with the world. And there are a number of ways to force a little bit of suffering on ourselves, just for the reminder that we can indeed endure trying circumstances, and that our daily lives aren’t as miserable as the dreadful possibilities that existence could create. With the right perspective, even being stuck in traffic or a delayed flight can be turned into an opportunity to embrace suffering.
I’m not very good at it — and that might be why I classify it as suffering — but I run for this reason. Sometimes the runs are too hot. Sometimes the monotony of a treadmill gets to me. Sometimes I face the the pain of a distance I haven’t ran before. On these runs I remember that there’s great distance athletes who will run as far as 240 miles to test their limits. My 10K runs can surely be endured if ultra-runners can run great distances, especially in the oppressive heat.
After his time in Gulag camps of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would write about those who endured the atrocities, “…they were people who had withdrawn so deeply into the life of the mind that no bodily suffering could upset their spiritual equilibrium.” It’s a rather Stoic approach to the dilemma of suffering, but one that created a strength and a resolve for those that chose it. In his novel The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn would write, “Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It’s the same with happiness, the very same…happiness doesn’t depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them. There’s a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: ‘Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.”
We don’t know how tough we are until we’re tested. We don’t know what we can endure until we suffer. When we test our limits, we find out about our strength, and that gives us confidence to persevere through new challenges. Instead of having faith in ourselves, we have proof of what we’re capable of. As basketball coach Gregg Popovich said, “The measure of who we are is how we react to something that doesn’t go our way.”
Our easiest days are the ones behind us. On these days we already accomplished the effort. On the days ahead we have to give more effort and more responsibility will likely be expected of us. It’s the conundrum of life that things often get more more difficult as life continues, whether it be more responsibility or more at stake. But as the C.S. Lewis quote mentioned above told us, we exclude life itself when we exclude suffering. The goal shouldn’t be to rid ourselves of it. The goal should be to see how much of it we can shoulder, so we know how much we’re capable of, and we can transform as a result of our suffering. And intertwined with these moments of suffering we’ll find the times where it isn’t present, and we’re left simply with meaningful engagement with the world.