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.

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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.

Have You Been Morally Lucky?

In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.

We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.

The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.

The snow said otherwise.

My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.

Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”

What does that mean?

Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”

Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.

What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.

But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”

I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.

Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.

I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:

  • Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
  • The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.

But it is even more complicated.

Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?

Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?

Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”

I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.

You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?

For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.

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The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.