Suffering is inevitable.
Truth can be debated endlessly. Look no further than the blind men and the elephant. Simply put, a singular Truth cannot be known 🤷♂️
What can be understood are the collection of truisms close to Truth. Things that are agnostic to time, space, culture, and context are more true than dichotomies or idioms. Something that, once known, is of terrible power for its ability to inflict or relieve suffering in one and another. Yet, not knowing can lead to a suffering through ignorance!
All life seems to agree on this: Suffering is the only guaranteed experience.
Before you go, hear me out. Suffering is a cornerstone of existence if not the foundation of what it means to be alive.
It all starts where all things do: at the beginning.
First there is the suffering caused to mothers during pregnancy and labor. Second, babes wail at the shockingly cold, shockingly bright loss of everything they have ever known. Communities then suffer the child’s cries and inadequacies while their parents sweat and toil to keep the new human alive – and often that is beyond their abilities!
The baby born, that child will become self conscious. With that knowledge, the young person begins to doubt their own value. Their body morphs through puberty in unknowable, painful ways. Their minds become aware of themselves and other people, namely the failures of themselves and their society. A child is considered ‘mature’ when they lose the shield that was naiveté. In a complete upending of the child’s reality, they come to understand they are betrayed by family, friends, society, and their own body.
That babe-turned-adult suffers once again as the incessant march of time grinds down thought and bones alike. If not outright crippled in mind and body, the ‘edge’ of peak performance experienced in late adolescence is dulled. A second revelation comes where the elder recognizes how much of their short life has been spent with little return. Existential nihilism or a living lie of denial sets in, killing the elder long before they are dead and buried. This is the elder’s only inheritance left to their next of kin, who in turn do not understand the trauma they’ve received. Thus the cycle of suffering, from birth to death, continues on into the next generation.
Matter – atoms and the like – too suffers in its creation, as understood through an empathetic anthropomorphism. All particles exploded into an inferno during the universe’s birth. All suns only formed after eons of atoms floating alone before being crushed and incinerated under their own weight and the smothering of their kin. The universe itself may be convulsing in a cyclic version of Western Hell and has so done since the beginning of time.
Suffering is inherent in creation. Yet does it last?
We see in the life of a person or a galaxy, suffering is the ever-constant companion throughout a singular existence. From start to finish, suffering is present and repeats its pattern infinitely.
Suffering persists. But what of the Good?
While there are absolutely may be moments of pleasure in one’s life, no two persons can agree on the specifics of such pleasures, or if the pleasure itself is a Good thing! (What is Good has been mentioned before, but a further exploration is later in this post.)
What used to be the common ground of Good was religion. But which religion? Which denomination of that religion? Can a history of stoning neighbors, burning knowledge, and the excruciation of the masses, justified in the many names of God, be considered Good? (Rhetorical questions all.)
When consuming certain mushrooms across the world, shamans and laypersons alike gain the satisfaction of meeting their own God without the need of religion. Perhaps this is a contributor as to why claims to be religious are becoming a minority. Regardless, religion seems to be unable to define a Good in the universe.
Hedonism gives many moments of pleasure. Eating, drinking, sex, and drugs all stimulate dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, these chemicals the only objective cause of pleasure in a person’s body. If pure pleasure is what Good is, the only Good activity in life is the pursuit of opiates until death arrives, the dead no longer suffering.
Sensual pleasure works as well as it does because of the erasure of self it causes. There is no person, there is only bliss. Should a person retain any amount of self-conscious ego, this pleasure is often found to be meaningless. (Not to mention that the individual hardly survives for long, which is not Good.)
The idea of ‘the nation‘ aims to give meaning with shared common purpose, that which the nation claims to be Good. Further, nations promise to carry the ideas and works and wishes of the citizen into the future, a survival-by-proxy. So which nation is Good? When? For whom? What consistently has been considered Good? Perhaps during the disenfranchisement of its women? The crucifixion of its minorities? The genocide of its enemies? The enslavement of the destitute?
The nation has many ideas of what Good is. No idea remains consistent, thereby a changing, unreliable definition of what is Good. In the book The Rape of Nanking, it is come to be understood that nations will justify its actions without remorse, even glee, passing this ‘goodness’ into its citizens and collective actions. It is clear ‘the nation,’ despite giving meaning and surviving, cannot be Good.
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.George Orwell, 1984
In these ways, the Good is entirely subjective. What is Good for one cannot be guaranteed for another. The Confucian Golden Rule of “do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” aims to address this, where it usurps its Western opposite of “do unto others what you would have them do to you.”
But Good may yet have something true about it. If suffering is the omnipresent woe, minimizing suffering may be a common agreed-upon Good. But remember that many things done with ‘Good’ intention (Western Golden Rule) cause suffering. Therefore, Goodness with the intent to reduce suffering seemingly is to act less on perceived suffering (the context others appear to be in) and more on actual suffering (the context a person finds themselves in, the only guarantee suffering is indeed occurring).
As Goodness with the minimal definition is an eternal endeavor since suffering persists, Good would need to accommodate failure and continue (i.e. survive). That still does not negate this narrow definition of Good as being subjective, only one in a crowd of other definitions that claim to be correct.
Simply put, a definition of Good may be “reduce net suffering to survive and survive to reduce net suffering.” This does not violate the subjectivity of Good, merely prescribes what the abstract concept is.
Good is subjective. So what is objective?
If any claim to objectivity is made, it seems to be made of suffering and surviving. A person cannot do a guaranteed Good. By the act of existing only, a person can participate in suffering.
You and I will experience suffering, will cause it. Much of it will happen and we won’t be aware of it. In our darkest times, we will seek it out.
Therein lies an objective truth: Suffering is inevitable. With that knowledge, preparing to suffer can be committed to and actions readied to reduce it. How suffering is perceived is variable, but thoughts about suffering tend to trend in two ways: Those that have the means to hypothetically bear great suffering are better; those that endure actual suffering not of their choosing are considered lesser.
Whether suffering is accepted or railed against, if a person finds that they are suffering, it may be a comfort to know suffering is natural and it too can pass. How to address suffering is another topic entirely, an important one to have when suffering is known to exist, persist, and permeate throughout the universe.
In these ways suffering conforms to a universal truth, a first-tier fact that better reveals Truth and hones other truths in their meaning and purpose.
Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes.George Orwell, 1984
Something I’ve pondered on and worth continuing to ponder. Before we go, a final word on suffering and what to do about it:
I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. And even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log.
As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy.
One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children.
And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.Terry Pratchett
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