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.