You’re Supposed to Suffer

Frans Francken II — Temptation of St. Anthony

It’s a weird specific type of human arrogance to think that people can offset the great universal balance of positive and negative. It’s like trying to split an atom; we all know what happens when you do that. There are thousands of books out there trying to convince people that the secret to their happiness is nothing more than a bit of positive thinking. This is very much a materialistic reduction of the concept of happiness. Similarly, it teaches people to obsess over happiness— not such wonderful advice. You know what the least likely way to find satisfaction is? Chasing satisfaction.

The search for satisfaction itself is still beside the whole point. Is life really just a big meal in which we eat until we’re full and then we go to sleep? I don’t think so. The more I’ve suffered in my life and also read the accounts of the sufferings of others, the more I’ve noticed a pattern. Those who seem to be supremely virtuous and heroic tend to take their sufferings in stride, as if they had no other choice. When they suffer, they suffer fully— they feel the feelings, cry, fight and do whatever they have to do not to hide their suffering or pretend it isn’t there, but to move beyond it. We’re supposed to suffer. It is the condition of consciousness, our blessing and curse. Modern living has made us think that suffering a burden to be surpassed, but surpassing suffering merely means dulling our consciousness. Suffering will never go away, not without severe consequence. We either learn to take it in stride or we miss out on an important facet of living.

Many people have a narcotic attitude towards suffering. It terrifies them and makes them uncomfortable and so instead of building a tool set for overcoming it, they aim to stifle it. The sheer popularity of entertainment, junk food, porn, video games and all these other modern distractions is testament to this. People have been led to believe that life is about satisfying simply impulses of instant gratification. They might not even be conscious of it; these distractions are provided to us as entertainment but they all serve as narcotics. The rise of tech and the rise of opioid abuse parallel one another. No surprises there.

I like to think that the concept of justice emerged as a reflection of nature rather than any sort of forced humanistic rearranging of the world. Justice is simply a human way of mediating cause and effect. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you kill someone, something different is going to happen to you than if you eat a piece of cake. Just like humans, not all offenses are created equal. The scale of justice is reflective of a real natural process, and the entire concept of justice is merely a metaphor for something we’ve learned from nature— balance. We don’t give the murderer a cake just because that would create more temporary happiness in the world. Sometimes, we even balance the scales by giving him murder in return. Even the virtuous man suffers at the hand of the spontaneity of nature.

This simply serves to illustrate the basic properties of the scale of justice. The scale concept applies also to any sort of consideration of balance, since a scale reflects the gravitational laws of nature. Every life is a balance of suffering and relief, and the scale never fully ends up teetering to one side. As soon as one overcomes, the weight on both sides increases, with suffering increasing just slightly more than relief. Then you suffer some more.

The scale of circumstance is not “happiness” and “unhappiness”. There are a lot of “happy” people in this world and a lot of “unhappy” people, but this doesn’t matter. Chasing happiness rearranges your life so that you prevent yourself from taking the risks and enduring the suffering that’s likely to provide you with any sort of lasting awareness or wisdom. And that wisdom will always be offset by more suffering, so it’s important to learn to navigate the world in a way that isn’t just centered around happiness and well-being.

I enjoy certain Buddhist concepts to an extent but I don’t value asceticism at all. Zen Buddhism is the self-critical weary form of Buddhism; it does not aim to cede suffering but to cultivate its conversion into wisdom. The four noble truths of capital-B Buddhism function using a definitively life-denying logic, and for this reason I’m truly skeptical of them. As they say, when you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him:

  • Life is suffering
  • Suffering comes from attachment
  • Ending attachment ends suffering
  • Practicing the Noble Eightfold Path ends suffering

This is the gist of it, at least. You get the idea. In a strange way this is just an esoteric ancient example of the exoteric modern self-help book mentality; it makes sense that such a mentality drew heavily from the Westernization a la carté of Buddhism.

One can suffer, recognize one’s attachments, and seek to end this suffering through various forms of ascetic goodness, lovingkindness, and whatever else, sure. This is cloaked in this religious concept of samsara, whereby one escapes being birthed in the natural world of suffering until one escapes the cycle. It’s one way to approach life. Asceticism is by nature somewhat life-denying, however. As with anything, you’re trading something else for it.

I’ve studied Buddhism for years and as I’ve matured I’ve discovered within myself that I don’t mind suffering, even a lot, if it means I can be a part of the cycle of this natural world. Readers may disagree, but I hope you can learn a bit from the aforementioned logic the limits of approaching the world with an ascetic monkish mentality, or even of calling yourself a Buddhist. This is real life; there is no escape. If you want to play, you’ve gotta pay. If you do decide to escape, real life (nature) will respond by punishing you, as it punishes every action with an equal and opposite reaction. Those who balk from life may escape it, but those who escape also miss out. The more we take suffering in stride, the more we learn and, most importantly, the more we become immune to the petty issues of the day-to-day.

I want to suffer and learn from it and then suffer some more and learn from that. Call me a masochist, but I really love learning.

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