Why Does Suffering Happen?

Good and bad, up and down, things happen. We prefer wins over losses and joy rather than sadness. While treatment often helps with suffering, reducing distress isn’t sufficient for a thoughtful therapist or client.

Most of us attempt to understand why we suffer. The attempt to reckon with this fact of life is called a philosophical approach to suffering, as described by Professor Edith Hall in discussing ancient Greek Tragedy.

Many answers have been offered, of which Dr. Hall mentions the first two below:

  • The individual who experienced a tragic event did something “stupid.” The person made a mistake. “He should have known better,” we might say to ourselves. In other words, the man made an error in judgment.
  • The misfortune goes far beyond what can be fully explained. The Professor cites Oedipus as an example. This king is arrogant and impulsive, not inclined to listen to advice or display kindness, but hasn’t earned the horror that befalls him.

  • A more satisfying answer can be found in the New Testament. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” In other words, something positive will come from misfortune.
  • What is commonly referred to as Bad Karma is thought to be the result of your behavior in present or previous lives. Hindu sects suggest you must improve your actions and thoughts through successive reincarnated lives until you reach perfection. Doing so allows you to escape the cycle of death and rebirth on earth.
  • Some fundamentalist religions ascribe misfortune to a failure of your personal faith. They sometimes point to your misunderstanding of what God requires, leaving the directives of their “only true religion” unfulfilled.
  • Stoic philosophers tell us misfortune occurs within the regular unfolding of human existence. We suffer because we are mortal, subject to worldly events. Hurtful challenges offer opportunities to improve ourselves but aren’t fashioned by divine authority. We are left with the necessity of growing and taking on life as it is, not as we wish it could be. The Stoics encourage reminding ourselves of life’s brevity, living with the urgency such awareness imposes, and focusing on what we control. Since we cannot change the conditions, they suggest we accept them.

  • Speaking in a general way, Buddhism tells us life is suffering. To endure the pain and reach an elevated state (Nirvana), one is advised to empty himself of wanting and desire, two sources of unhappiness. The aim is to surrender our sense of individuality and merge with a higher state of being, a spiritual awakening known as “no self.” Meditation helps. Hinduism and Buddhism take various forms, as many religions do.
  • Let’s not forget the devil, a creature sometimes blamed for our catastrophes. Unfortunately, once we begin calling people “evildoers” or similar names, we move closer to harming them and becoming like the individuals we hate.
  • I’ll limit this list to one more cause of adversity: poor luck, randomness, or a lack of discoverable reasons. You walk down the block, and a falling brick strikes you. A shame.

Any solution to the “why” question must offer comfort. We’d probably be less inclined to keep asking such questions if they provided a satisfying and lasting answer. Watching dramatic enactments or reading books that keep the issue before us indicates we don’t easily let go of our preoccupation.

One way we try to quell our worries is to find heroic defenders. A strong mate, a gifted physician, and a charismatic political leader can serve this purpose. History tells us about injured soldiers in every war crying for their mothers.

Outside of reliance on others, most attempts to quiet the fear of suffering require regular “practice.” For example, Bible reading, the Stoic’s daily reminder of his mortality, and the Buddhist’s quiet meditation. All attempt to soothe or dismiss the looming possibility of future hardship.

Still, we are left with some related concerns. When misfortune occurs to someone else, do we feel better? Perhaps, if we believe their “mistakes” offer us the confidence we will not duplicate what they did.

The religious answers suggest some order exists in the universe. On the other hand, the presence of random unpredictability tends to be unsatisfying at least, terrifying at worst.

Do we blame others more than we blame ourselves when things go poorly? That is consistent with my observation, though not true of everyone. Humans are gifted with psychological defenses against full awareness of their flaws.

Is there any advantage to asking the question of why we suffer? I’d say yes. It can prepare you for unexpected events.

Considering the question may also raise your level of compassion and kindness, not setting you above the remainder of humanity.

Thus, the topic inclines us to embrace our universal circumstances as fellow suffers. As one might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We are all mortals — every living being on the planet. We share the need to join together to make enlightened use of our fleeting time on earth. To do otherwise will leave us vulnerable to circumstances beyond individual control.

The question of philosophical suffering is optional, of course. There is no requirement to think about it or provide a specific answer.

One could argue too much preoccupation with such thoughts carries its own distress. If you think about how we live, no small part of our time is spent worrying about trivial issues. Much of our attention is put into self-distraction or various forms of entertainment.

It is your life to do as you wish. Choose wisely.

This fellow human wishes you the best life possible.


The top image is a Question Mark Choice created by quimono. After the brief youtube video featuring Dr. Hall comes Meditation at Empty Cloud Monastery by Rikku411. The final photo is called Reading in Solitude, the work of benwhitephotography. All are derived from Wikimedia Commons.

16 thoughts on “Why Does Suffering Happen?

  1. Perhaps instead of Why we can ask: What now? Judaism’s tenets require us to take action to alleviate the suffering of others. Specifically, this is done through acts of kindness, helping the needy, visiting the sick, burying the dead, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, giving charity, and comforting the mourner. In this way, throughout different points in our lives, we may be the giver or the recipient of compassion. Witnessing the suffering of others also reminds us to appreciate the blessings in our own lives, to not take the good for granted. Suffering can bring an opportunity for growth to those in pain and to those who aid.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I have been asking myself why I ended up being a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I only discovered it after my abuser had died. Many terrifying nightmares and intense therapy sessions over 5 years put the puzzle of my childhood reality together. I have an excellent therapist that taught me that the emotional and verbal abuse I experienced was not “normal”. He is the opposite of the monster I knew as dad. I was in church recently and was very angry thinking “if there is a God why would he let any child go through this?” As the priest did his sermon I could see in my mind my “support team”. The anger dissipated. My therapist, who is a great fit, when I trust almost no one, his assistant, my husband of34 years, our couples counsellor of three years, and Father S (the only priest I have ever connected with). I have come through the therapy with the help of these people. Perhaps God put me on a path to find them. At first I wished I hadn’t learned the truth as it is repulsive. But the symptoms of panic, anxiety, depression,OCD, dissociated memories were torture for many years. Learning about the abuse answered “WHY” for me and for the first time…in my 50s I have a chance to live a healthier, freer life.

    Liked by 3 people

    • (((Safe hugs))) Pat! I’m so sorry you dealt with all that trauma! I, too, was wondering the same thing; I experienced CSA, too. I constantly ask myself, “WHY?”

      There are many (philosophical) reasons I’ve been given by many different professionals – from therapists, to pastors, to friends, to victimologists (most often in the form of undergrad studies on victimization, polyvictimization, etc.). There are also some empirical reasons (criminal justice based victimization studies coupled with criminology studies on criminal behaviors). I can drive myself nuts trying to find an answer, when sometimes there is no logical explanation or answer.

      What hurts the worst is what criminologists call “secondary victimization.” Secondary victimization occurs when people don’t believe you, when you have to get on a witness stand in court and subsequently get attacked by the defense, when your pain is not validated and/or is undermined by professionals, when spiritual counselors tell you that you have demons or that you have a “spirit of lust” that needs to be cast out, or when people victim-blame/victim-shame. The just-world fallacy comes to mind with some of these philosophies about why we suffer, and why some people have had repeat suffering throughout their lifetime. Finding peace seemed like an endless task.

      I struggle with dissociation, PTSD, OCD, and other issues. The dissociation was a defense to deal with the trauma and pain. The PTSD was the effect of trauma, which kept me hypervigilant, as if I could try and prevent the next attack. OCD was there as another means for me to prevent attacks (I think I have the trauma-based OCD, which may differ from other kinds of OCD). Of course, depression and anxiety are blended in with all of the above. Trying to figure out why this was happening to me, and why I’ve suffered so much throughout my life, was sometimes more painful than the original traumas themselves.

      I hope you are doing well. I’m hanging in there. It’s not easy though.


      • I am glad you are hanging in there ❤️‍🩹. I have complications too…touch aversion, startling over nothing etc. I know there is no satisfactory answer as to why my family member did this to me. I am glad I dissociated until after they were dead. You are very strong to get through this and brave. I appreciate your reply as you know how it is. Take care of yourself. I just got a Warrior tattoo with a heart for me, my spouse, and two adult children to help me know I fought through the worst of it and my own family is amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You and Dragon Fly are warriors, indeed! By the way, the German language includes the word warrior among its many surnames: Krieger.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I think I started addressing the trauma after my abusers passed away, too. I never thought about that. What you describe parallels what I go through. I’m 48 years old now (just had a birthday last month). I’m disabled, and I’m still struggling. But I have a great therapist now, but we’re taking the trauma stuff slow. She lets me process them in bits and pieces, kind of like how my memories are – in bits and pieces.

        Thank you for saying that I’m strong. You’re strong, too! 🙂

        Congratulations on your Warrior tattoo! Your family sounds supportive and, indeed, amazing! 🙂 You are truly a Warrior!


  3. Thank you, Pat. You’ve touched on several questions. The most wide-ranging of them is the question of how an all-good and all-powerful deity permits evil. Evil’s presence on earth is easily understood if one were to discount the deity’s goodness. Take away his ability to do anything he wishes or prevent anything he desires, and the question is resolved again. However, putting them together challenges many of the world’s religions. In response, we have an entire field of religious, moral, and philosophical inquiry called theodicy — the centuries-long attempt to vindicate God.

    Putting that aside, I think Evelyn’s comment addresses your personal tragedy
    and its aftermath. All those dear people you’ve mentioned have helped you along. Bless them, and cheers to you for the courage it must continue to take to make your way through life and, I’m sure, be as kind as you can. Thank you for telling your story.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Dr. Stein, what about Zoroasterianism. Evil is a real force in this Universe. Humans should align themselves with Good and help ameliorate suffering.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree we should attempt to do good, Herman. Part of our challenge is that we don’t all agree with what is good. I have encountered a few people who did things that I would say were evil (small e). Whether Evil (capital E) exists, is a question above my pay grade. Thanks for the reference to the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. As I am sure you know, it still has a relatively small group of followers. Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Dr. Stein, I thank you for this insightful and heartwarming post. While pondering the ideas presented, I thought of the other living beings–plant, animal, and other–who also “suffer” devastating loss and even driven to extinction. Buddhism may well have grasped the truth of our existence when it tells us that “life is suffering.” Not just human life, but ALL life forms. We humans are no less perfect or more imperfect than other life forms. Perhaps, our greatest gift of self-awareness is also our Achilles heel. As you have noted: “Humans are gifted with psychological defenses against full awareness of their flaws.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You are wise to include all living creatures. Too many think that by calling a fellow human “an animal,” we derogate him. Both of us would agree that to do so is cruel, but it also displays the the lack of compassion and awareness in the one pointing his finger.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I love your list of the many approaches/answers to why we suffer. And your statement, “Considering the question may also raise your level of compassion and kindness, not setting you above the remainder of humanity.”

    I suppose that suffering helps us focus our values on the relationships in our lives and more prepared to ask the question, “how can I help?” For whatever reason we suffer, may we all learn how to do that better.

    Starting by reading this post and beautiful thinking about what to do with our suffering! Thanks, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Doing better, indeed, Wynne. That’s our lifelong job. Thanks for your kind words.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoyed this post and the comments! Another great one, Dr. Stein! 🙂

    I replied to Pat above, and I read all of the comments above.

    Apart from my own traumas/suffering, I am wondering what those poor people in Florida are going through. I can’t imagine losing your house, your car, and all your belongings – let alone loved ones who died as a result of Hurricane Ian! Some people don’t even have insurance to cover their losses. I can’t imagine the many people who may have to claim bankruptcy because of this, and to start over from scratch. I can’t imagine the cost of cleaning up that mess, and all the post-hurricane issues such as bacteria, mold, mildew, and other pathogens that can affect people’s health. Two people reportedly died by suicide, according to some news report I read recently (I can’t recall where). I’ve read many stories about people who have survived, and also some sad stories about people who have died. I’m sure there are many people wondering why this kind of suffering has happened to them.

    The effects of the suffering we witness in others, apart from ourselves, might also bring us to ask the “why” question. We might be reactive, or we might be proactive. We might have differences in definitions of “helping” someone who is suffering, or even helping ourselves. We might be emotional, or we might be stoic. It’s hard to figure out what response is correct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dragon Fly. The simple answer might be the find out what works for you, since there are no clear “right answers” to the question of why suffering happens. I think the best people can do in any difficult situation is “their part.”

      There is an important Jewish teaching that reminds everyone of what God expects and man needs: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Many of those who have suffered harm in the world may well enable recovering and healing both for themselves and others by trying to do what they can for those suffering pain, hardship, depression, hunger, etc.

      Liked by 3 people

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