It’s almost the first question my clients ask me….
It lurks in the background of every adult mind who witness scenes of suffering and misfortune or experiences it themselves through the death of a loved one, loss of financial security, love or health.
And if you are a deeply philosophical person, this question is probably what keeps you awake at night trying to solve life’s most puzzling questions.
Some people temporarily find solace in religion, believing that even though good people suffer terribly in this life, they eventually go to heaven or some kind of paradise after death. Many eventually come to see through the toxic fallacies of religious dogma, sensing deep down that this answer was not enough, despite how much it appealed to them.
But there is great value in suffering because after you exhaust yourself, after you reach the point of despair, something within you breaks. Something within you changes. After wearing down the narrow, societally-conditioned frame of thought and reference through which you have been perceiving, questioning and judging the world, it is possible to expand your mind beyond how it has been taught to think.
Our first instinct to follow our preconditioned way of thinking and reasoning leads us to the following assumptions:
· There are good and bad people
· Good people should not suffer
· Pain and suffering are the same.
So it begs the question- Is there such a thing as a good person?
Your immediate instinct is, “Yes of course there is”! We have glowing examples like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and certainly these people were generous, unselfish, kind, compassionate. But is there such a thing as “truly good”?
The problem with the use of such language and concepts is that they are limiting, divisive, minimizing and simplistic. But it seems necessary if we are to function efficiently as a society. It helps broadly describe a person depending on their dominant traits.
The problem with the good/bad duality of language is that it fools us into believing that the world is “black and white”: that a “good” person deserves to be rewarded and a “bad” person deserves to be punished. This dangerous, divisive and two -dimensional way of perceiving the world is what creates so much of our suffering. And when we believe that we are “good” people, it is common for us to develop a sense of entitlement that causes us to believe that we should be exempt from life’s struggles.
However, when some tragedy or misfortune befalls, you cry out in rage or horror, “I’m a GOOD person, I don’t DESERVE to be punished!” This crack in the fabric of your reasoning greatly unsettles you mainly because it shows you that your “Good and Bad” framework of perception is an illusion: and that there is no such thing as a “good” person who is always rewarded and no “bad” person who is always punished.
No one wants to hear this and it shocks and offends them greatly. If there are no bad people then who were Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, or Jack the Ripper? Such an argument seems understandable within the black and white reasoning.
Certainly these dictators and mass murderers were cold, selfish, vile, cruel and calculating and it gives you great satisfaction to see them severely punished, but the same reasoning you use against them- they are bad people- was used by them against the people they slaughtered- they were bad people, they were not human, they were not worthy. Once we morally assess someone, any form of disdain or even cruelty can be rationalized- social alienation, bullying, torture etc.
You might think you are a good person and deserve the best in life, but others might believe you are a “bad” person who deserves to be punished. So who is right? You? Them? Who makes the final judgement and why? Which subjective opinion is more correct? And even if one proves you are a “good” person are you totally good, 100% of the time?
Can you see the problem with dividing the world into a simplistic good/bad framework? It simply doesn’t truthfully represent the full spectrum of what makes us “us” and the other people “other” people. As you have just seen, there is no such thing as a good or bad person because it all is a subjective matter, two- dimensional reasoning.
What is suffering anyway?
We all know that life undergoes processes of death and birth- the balance of growth, gain and loss. A fish is eaten by a shark, a forest is destroyed by a wildfire, a lioness loses her cub in an elephant stampede.
Is suffering having something taken away from you that wasn’t yours like a lover, a child, or a house? Is suffering undergoing a terminal illness that will destroy a body that isn’t really who you are? Is suffering facing insults, physical abuse or abandonment against an identity that doesn’t represent the truth about you?
All of life faces loss and death. Why shouldn’t humans experience the same as the rest of life? Why do we expect to be given special treatment? Because we consider ourselves superior and separate to everything else on the planet? If we understand the interconnectedness of life, we would know that we belong to the same circle of life and are governed by the same laws of the universe.
The difference between suffering and pain
Birds being eaten by cats experience pain, as do many small animals crushed by vehicles on the highway, but these experiences of pain are momentary and fleeting.
Suffering however is a prolonged and often endless experience that is exclusive to us human beings. We suffer because we resist life and cling to that which is transient and subject to change such as people, relationships, promises, personal identities and ideologies.
When we stop resisting things, we stop suffering and begin to experience pain only, a pain that is fleeting and temporary. Unfortunately we tend to define suffering and pain as one and the same thing, but they aren’t. One is unnatural- suffering, the product of our mind and ego and one is natural- pain, the product of existence.
People suffer because they cling to and resist the natural process of life: namely change, decline, death and pain. People suffer because they believe they have to protect their sense of self against “outside forces”, when in fact their sense of “self” are completely illusionary constructs of the human mind that smother the true reality of who we are: Life.
It is the human sense of entitlement and not recognizing that we are a soul on a human journey and that we truly own nothing that creates our greatest suffering. We establish attachments to our children, lovers, families, wealth and everything else and when we lose something then we slip into despair and suffering.
If you are a soul and life then how can you suffer? You are unchangeable, boundless, eternal and innately whole and complete. When we are unaware or lose touch with this we suffer.
It is important to see through the fallacy of concepts such as good and bad people and understand that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. If we accept our position in the cosmic play of life and understand that while anything can be taken away from us at any moment, we are already innately WHOLE!