Why Do We Suffer?
The world hasn’t been short on suffering lately. Mass shootings. International war. A global pandemic that doesn’t want to go away. Spiking murders and overdoses. Ruinous inflation and collapsing finances. Each disaster, big or small, creates a story of immeasurable loss on those it afflicts and a little bit of heartbreak for those just hearing about it. We live on the brink, all of us frail humans on this stormy globe. Each passing wave might be the one that finally lifts you up and smashes you against the rocky shore. If you didn’t realize it before, you’ve probably had some occasion to consider it these past few years.
I’ve been lucky. I sailed through COVID without any more than an annoyance. I didn’t know anyone who died or even spent time in the hospital. I didn’t lose my job in the lockdowns. My kids still went to school. But many of you did lose someone, if not the virus then to something else. Did you know that non-COVID deaths are also way up in the last two years? Or you might have had a scare you’re still not recovered from. And then there are all the ordinary moments of pain and hardship. The late nights and stressful days at work. The bitter arguments and the broken relationships. The injuries that come at just the wrong moment and the unexpected expenses that eat away the last of your dollars. Life isn’t all suffering. But when your marriage falls apart or another pregnancy ends in miscarriage, when you lose your job or get your thousandth rejection letter, when see the news and think none of it will happen to you, but then in does, life will suddenly leave you with all-too-familiar questions and a desperate search for answers.
I don’t have any. When the pain hits, it hurts too much to think about. Even if you had answers, you wouldn’t find them much relief. All your thoughts blur into a dark fog, all your wanderings and wonderings only lead you further into the night. You don’t find your way out. You bear it until it passes. It does eventually end. Only looking back on that crooked road do you begin to see the shape of how it led you through the valley. So let me dwell on our suffering for a moment, that if we cannot eliminate it, we might at least understand it.
Suffering is not good. I think we can agree on that. In a perfect world, there would be no suffering, no sickness, no hardship or death. The fact that we suffer is perhaps the most obvious indication that something is wrong with the world. What is that something? It can’t be the suffering itself any more than a sore throat can be the cause of a virus. Our bodies experience pain and sickness because some part of it has a problem, has become infected, hs gone out of control, has stopped working as it should. The pain is a signal, warning us of the underlying ailment. Likewise, our suffering is an indication that some fundamental part of the world does not work as it should. It cries out at us, screaming for someone to make it well. So what is this malady that afflicts the whole world? What’s wrong with the world? We are.
Humanity is sick. If you don’t believe that, I invite you to read any history of any people of any period, ever. Maybe there are other problems too, but it’s tautological to say that the world cannot be perfect while even one person is not. In a perfect world, with perfect people, it would be possible, if not assured, that no one would suffer. In our imperfect world, with our imperfect people, we need to suffer. It reminds us we are not complete. It keeps us from becoming complacent. It pushes us to be better. It forces us to grow.
If you want to let something die, make it comfortable. It will ease right out of existence without ever knowing it’s in danger. To become weak, gorge yourself on luxury, never feeling hunger or pain or exhaustion. Without a constant challenge, our bodies stagnate and decay. So too our minds. So too our souls. We know the type of spoiled, lazy child. We’ve felt what it’s like, at times, to be an unmotivated couch potato. We’ve languished in the boredom of a monotonous job. We exercise to resist the forces of aging and entropy. We read or we discuss or we explore to keep our thoughts from numbing. We persevere through hardship to strengthen our character for the next crisis. Yes, it hurts. All growth does.
I don’t remember the hardest times in my life fondly. I remember the stress of not knowing whether we could pay the bills and the disappointment of not being able to afford even simple luxuries. I remember crying on the way home from a job I hated but couldn’t quit, not knowing what I was doing with my life. I remember the fear and uncertainty, medically and financially, when my wife went on bedrest during her first pregnancy. I remember the exhaustion and frustration of countless nights awake trying to comfort our sick second baby, pleading for anything to make the crying stop.
But from my current vantage, I can see that those hard times were the pivotal moments of my life, much more so than any of the (very meager) successes. It was then that I realized my life had gone off track, that I wasn’t doing the things I needed to do in my career, that I wasn’t being a good husband or father, that I wasn’t spending our money wisely, that I was taking what we had for granted, that I was selfish or foolish or childish. Sometimes my faults were the cause of the crisis, as with many of my early marital struggles, but other times they were happenstance, not caused by my errors any more than a bad decision causes the thunderstorm that floods your house. But in every case they revealed my faults or tested my strengths. They each gave me the opportunity to make the necessary changes I might otherwise have gotten along just fine without. Not that I always took advantage of the opportunity. Pain and hardship can grind you down, make you cynical and bitter, but only if you let them. You can either be dragged down with anger and resentment or rise up with humility and gratitude, becoming just a little better, a little stronger, a little wiser. Those little changes add up. They make a life, for better or worse.
The point is not to seek out suffering, though you could do worse. Certainly it’s not to inflict suffering, which, even if done for supposedly noble reasons, would slowly eat away at our character, making us more callous and cruel. Rather, it is to put our suffering in proper context, to realize it for what it is. Suffering is a gift. True, it’s more of a utilitarian gift, like underwear for Christmas, than a shiny new bike or long-awaited nintendo. But we’d be in trouble without it. A life of perfect comfort would merely solidify all our imperfections and blind us to all that was wrong in ourselves and others. But having passed through our own suffering, we can see the faults in ourselves and the world, molding ourselves slowly toward perfection, and we can safely and humbly work to alleviate the suffering of others, knowing how to do so without smothering or spoiling them and aware there is no danger of it being eradicated.
Doesn’t death completely nullify this process of self-improvement, though? What benefit accrues while being swept away in a hurricane or exploded by a cruise missile? I suppose it’s true that death would be pointless if all the world is only matter and energy, if there is no part of us left after we die. But then, so would self-improvement. The idea of improving yourself depends on some fundamental ideal which you may be farther or closer to achieving. Before the world can be perfect, you have to define perfection, and it cannot be some personal or temporary preference, because it must apply to everyone. How can the world be perfect if not everyone agrees? Perfection is a timeless and eternal value. Good thing, too, because it takes a long time to get there. No amount of suffering in a life, with the maximum amount of self-improvement, will every get you there. No one I know of has managed it. But if you can walk, ever so slowly, by the grace of God, in the right direction, you will be made perfect in eternity.
This is the nature of suffering. No one wants to suffer. No one likes it at the time. It seems so pointless, so gratuitous. It’s not. It’s vital. I know it’s hard to hold that in a mind wracked by pain and fear and doubt, and its natural to grieve, but maybe it will give you that little bit of strength you need to persevere, to know that your suffering is a tiny bit in the long process of the perfection of the world.