Do you ever feel as if your life is about suffering?
Do you ever feel that you suffer needlessly?
I recently read a story in which a woman carried her dead son to Prince Siddhartha and asked the prince to revive him. The prince told the mother to go to each house in the village and obtain a mustard seed from each family that had never known suffering. On her return with the mustard seeds he would consider her request. The distraught woman began knocking on each door in search of the family that had never known suffering but could not find one.
In our contemporary society, we are told that if only we have the latest gadget, dress in the latest fashion, or stay current with the latest news, then we will know happiness and no longer suffer. If the latest gadgets, fashions, or news don’t alleviate our suffering or bring us happiness, there are pills and beverages (some legal, some not) that we can take to bring us happiness and eliminate our suffering. What modern society fails to accept is that suffering is the part of life that makes us more fully human.
Here are six reasons why suffering is a normal part of life:
- Suffering makes us human. Suffering and adversity has existed as long as human beings have. When we suffer we are connected to the common fate of the people who came before us and the people who will come after us.
- Suffering is only as bad as we make it. If we believe we are entitled to a life of comfort, then a life that consists of suffering is simply unfair, and who likes an unfair world? But if we believe that life is about growth and that growth entails a degree of pain and suffering, then there is nothing unfair about it.
- Suffering gives us a greater appreciation of the moments of comfort. If life were comfortable 24/7, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the moments of comfort. There would be nothing to compare comfort to. This is analogous to a marathon runner. If there were no suffering in running a marathon there would be no comfort, and certainly no sense of accomplishment, in crossing the finish line. Mountain climbers voluntarily endure excruciating suffering, often for weeks on end, in their attempt to reach the summit. They risk their lives, endure high altitude sickness, bottomless crevasses and glaciers, mountain storms, snow blindness, and sudden storms all to experience the several moments of magnificent comfort and satisfaction the mountain summit has to offer.
- Suffering can include the most profound happiness within it. We often think of suffering and happiness as exclusive. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Often the greatest happiness is found within suffering precisely because it is painful. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Sitting Bull, to name but a few, endured great suffering at the hands of others. It is implausible to think that they did not experience happiness (and even delight) within the suffering they experienced knowing that they were achieving greatness and actualizing their potential (and the potential of their people) through the hardships they suffered.
- Suffering is not an indictment of our self-worth. In Western culture, there is a deeply rooted belief that any type of suffering, whether it be financial, physical, emotional, familial, etc., is the result of being “unworthy.” If we believe this to be true, then our legitimate suffering is compounded with needless suffering. Success and comfort are like wheels. Those who are on top will one day be at the bottom and those who are on the bottom will one day be on the top. Bear in mind that our suffering in no way reflects who we are as people. Oftentimes, worthy and decent people suffer while cruel and indecent people experience seeming comfort.
- Suffering is a normal part of parenting, marriage, working, and every other worthwhile endeavor. If we are in a constant state of suffering and anguish then something is most likely not as it optimally should be. However, periodic suffering in all areas of life is normal. Every good marriage has periods of discord and uncertainty. Every healthy parent/child relationship goes through phases of disrespect and resentment with our children or parents not doing what we think they ought to be doing and us not doing what they think we ought to be doing. Jobs, homes, neighborhoods, and communities enter and leave our lives based on need, interest, and a variety of other factors, which are often based on suffering.Lobsters are soft animals with hard shells that do not grow. When lobsters outgrow their shells they climb into a rock cleft. They face the uncertainty of being swallowed up by another animal or of being swept away by the current. Yet imagine if lobsters stifled their discomfort rather than using it as a catalyst for growth: they would be a miniature species. We can emulate lobsters by accepting suffering as a sign that its time for growth and renewal. The bottom line is that periodic suffering is part of every aspect of our lives and it need not be “bad.” Suffering is what it is and what we make of it. Not pleasant, but generally not unbearable or unacceptable.
Take a moment and ask yourself what you accomplish through the suffering you endure.
The main thing to remember is that comfort is very much a state of mind attained by self-growth, personal development, and doing good for others and for ourselves.