Thoughts on Suffering
Over the years I have obsessed over the problem of suffering. When you really start thinking about all the bad things that have happened, that do happen, and that will happen, it can almost drive you insane. It is no longer my goal to have an answer that explains the suffering or makes it justified. My goal is just to be able to trust life, and even that is not easy. There is no easy answer to the question of why bad things happen. No answer can really take away the enormous pain that comes with certain circumstances. That being said, there have been a few ideas that have helped put my mind at ease, at least a little. I want to share those with you and maybe they will bring you some peace as well. If so, I'm glad, but if not, disregard them. Take only what is useful to you.
This Too Shall Pass
All suffering is impermanent. Think for yourself, is there anything in this world that never changes? Everything is always in flux. That's what makes it alive. Nothing stays the same for long, not your body, not your thoughts, not the earth or the stars. Everything is shifting and changing. I take some comfort in remembering that no matter what the situation, even the worst suffering imaginable does not last forever. It will eventually, inevitably have an end. Even in cases of the worst grief, while its true that a person will never fully recover or "get over" the loss, still the pain will shift and change. Some days will be better than others. Some people do make peace with it. I take comfort in remembering that all suffering comes to an end at some point.
Happiness and Suffering are Not Separate
This goes back to the principle that you cannot know black without white. I wouldn't appreciate the good days I have unless I knew what bad days were like. A bright sunny day brings much more pleasure after a week of rainy weather than after a heat wave in August. Indeed, some of the best days are right after I've gone through something really painful or difficult. Think of the joy we experience after having overcome a difficult challenge such as running a marathon or completing a college degree. Adversity is bound up with happiness. As Thich Nhat Hanh titled one of his books "No Mud, No Lotus." The beautiful lotus needs the mud and the compost to be able to grow. This principle is not just my opinion. Check out this TED talk titled "Why We Need Pain to Feel Happiness" by social psychologist Brock Bastian.
In an earlier post I quoted Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrating how a cloud is totally interconnected with a sheet of paper. Its not obvious or apparent how a cloud is connected to a sheet of paper unless you really start thinking about it deeply. The line of connection is complex, yet they are indeed connected. In the same way, I think to myself that even though I may not be able to see the connection between this instance of suffering and that instance of happiness, still the connection exists. Each individual thing or event in the universe implies the whole universe.
To borrow an analogy from Alan Watts, think of it like a large painting. If we zoom in on one dark splotch of paint and see ONLY that, its hard to make any sense of it. The splotch of paint might not look like anything, and it may not be very beautiful. If we zoom out, though, we see that the dark paint weaves into a larger whole. We can see that the dark and the light come together to form a coherent picture, which may indeed be beautiful. We can't really see the whole of life from our limited viewpoint.
The other day I was watching Toy Story 3 with my kids, and by the end I couldn't stop myself from crying. In case you've never seen it, the boy, Andy, who has grown up with his toys is getting ready to leave for college. In the beginning of the film his toys are trying desperately to be played with and have not been played with in years. At one point Andy refers to the toys as junk. After a long and crazy adventure that the toys go on, Andy eventually donates them to a small girl in the neighborhood. As he is giving his childhood toys away he tells her how much they have meant to him. He makes it clear how much he valued the toys over the course of his childhood. He tells her to take good care of them. Of course, this is all that has ever mattered to the sentient toys in the movie. They wanted to be loved and played with and to fulfill their destiny as toys. This scene felt really powerful to me precisely because of what Andy said earlier about the toys being junk. Their value was called into question. It was doubted. In the context of that doubt and pain, Andy's final validation was felt all the more strongly. It would not have been as powerful had Andy never said they were junk at the beginning of the movie.
So suffering always has the potential to be transformed. We think that the past can never be changed, but that's wrong. The past only exists in relationship to the present moment. What happens today or tomorrow can change the meaning of what happened yesterday just in the same way that the pain at the beginning of the Toy Story movie was eventually changed in the context of the ending. We live in an unfolding and creative universe. Nothing is finished.
While we are on the subject of movies, I think it is very telling that nearly all movies contain a problem or a villain to be overcome. We don't watch movies in which the characters sit on a beach in paradise for two hours and everything is great. Always something goes wrong. In fact, going back to Toy Story 3, the toys are initially donated to a daycare and everything seems wonderful. It seems like a toy paradise in which there are always children to play with and a friendly community of toys...but you know something is wrong. Its too good to be true. Sure enough, it turns out that the "friendly" community of toys is run by a corrupt and controlling stuffed bear who imprisons the toys and the toddlers of the daycare deal too roughly with the toys and put them through a kind of toy hell.
So always some element of challenge, pain, or suffering is introduced in order to thicken the plot. We have to work for the happy ending. It loses its value if its just given to us right up front. The story is only interesting because of the challenge. We grow from the challenges we face. They add depth and strength to us. Its like going to the gym. You don't lift the lightest weights possible to grow stronger. Instead you lift the weights that are difficult to lift. By doing that you gain strength over time. Our challenges often help shape and develop us. They cause us to evolve.
I also try to remember that life is much bigger than I am as an individual and It probably knows better than I do. I want to comprehend everything in the universe with my small mind, but its just not possible. I have to remember that all of the beauty in this world came to me from God. Everything I hold dear was given to me freely from God. Every flower I smell, every golden sunset, every smile on my children's faces, every song I hear, every bite of delicious food I taste is a blessing. Yet, the Source of all this has also arranged things in such a way that there is pain, suffering, sadness and death. In some way, seeing the beautiful side of life helps me to trust God through the bad. I trust and accept and even though I don't like it, this is the way things are. I am not in charge. I don't have to figure it all out. Sometimes it's freeing to just surrender myself to the Source of all of life in trust.