Hey, dudes! We’re glad you could join us again. I’ve been worried about some of you down in Florida and want to make sure those of you in Georgia and Alabama stay safe as well. Let’s get things started with an appropriately named playlist while you read. Let it get through the first couple of songs before you start. Maybe light a fat one if you have it. Take a deep breath before continuing.
“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”
― John Green,
As I write this, the Young Woman to this Old Man lies in a bed at a local hospital feeling a tremendous amount of pain. Kidney infection was the initial diagnosis a week ago, but at the moment there is no general consensus and more tests or imminent. Meanwhile, she suffers.
As I write this, Hurricane Irma creeps every closer to Florida. Already, it has devastated many of the Caribbean Islands. The death toll currently stands at 20-something but that number is sure to grow. Those who can evacuate already have for the most part. Those that remain are either stubborn, committed to the safety of those in their care, or too ill to travel. Most every reasonable preparation has been made but by the time you are reading this, my dear dudes, they will be suffering the blunt force of the storm.
As I write this, mourners line the streets in Southern Mexico, carrying the coffins of the more than 60 people who died in an 8.1 earthquake on Friday. This was the largest earthquake to hit the region in over 80 years. Most affected were the poor. People across the entire region are suffering.
As I write this, a former television news anchor, recently fired from his job, is dealing with walking into the bedroom of his 19-year-old son and finding him dead. While the exact cause of the young man’s death is unknown at this time, the father’s public protagonists chided that the death was karma for his own sins. Suffering piled upon suffering.
I read through the post in various online Dudeism groups and see that many of you are suffering as well. A child goes to prison. A significant other leaves without warning, emptying the bank account and destroying reputations in the process. Illness strikes at the most inopportune moment. A job disappears.
Everywhere I look, I see people suffering. And while I want to be the person who can casually pass it off and say, “It is what it is, man,” I can’t. The human in me cares too much about the humans outside of me. I know that, on a level higher than the physical plane of existence, we are all connected. What hurts my brother and my sister eventually hurts me as well. What causes you pain creates ripples across the universe so that suffering become compounded and inescapable.
At some point, we find ourselves asking, “Why?” Why are our lives filled with what often seems like an endless litany of suffering? Why is it that just about the time we think we’ve achieved a desirable state of chill, something or someone interferes and knocks us down, backing us against a toilet while someone inexplicably pisses on our rug? Do we only stand up so that we can fall all over again?
There is an ancient and universal philosophy shared not only in Taoism but across almost every religion stating that pain and suffering are a necessary part of life. The Tao te Ching puts it this way:
“If good happens, good; if bad happens, good. ”
That would appear, on the surface, to be a workable philosophy; there is both bad and good and they balance each other out. We must be careful, though, for that is not necessarily what the Tao teaches us. Consider these words:
“Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.”
Following that logic, suffering is inevitable, unavoidable, and the only way to get anywhere or achieve anything. Is it true that we are doomed to suffer and that it is only because of our suffering that we even have a concept of joy or happiness?
Be careful, my friends, for what we find here is a philosophical trap that keeps us so busy spinning in circles that we fail to see what is actually true. Suffering does not cause happiness any more than sour causes sweet. We cannot say, “If I suffer more now, I will know greater joy later.” Sorry, that’s just not the way it works, despite what many different people have told us.
Being raised in a conservatively Christian environment, the concept of suffering was tied directly to the will of God. Both Islam and Judaism teach the same thing through their shared monotheistic mythology. God, who is in control of all things because he created all things, allows bad things to happen, puts suffering in our paths, to teach us lessons, to discipline those who don’t obey, to punish those who do wrong, and sometimes just because he thinks we need to be reminded who’s the boss and in charge of everything. You’ll find this line of thought throughout the Bible, the Quran, and the Talmud, often using exactly the same words and phrases. God is in control of our suffering and there’s not really a damn thing we can do about it. He wants us to look to him, to rely on him for strength to muddle through it all.
Where I run into problems with that philosophy is that it makes God out to be one really sick son-of-a-bitch. If our suffering exists because God causes it to exist, that makes him a fucking sadist. This is like the child who derives joy from torturing its pets or the bully who gets off on beating up smaller children. When we come across those same personality traits in human form, we lock those people away to protect society from the harm they do. Why in the world would we tolerate a deity with the same flaws? Even if God does not directly cause our suffering, if he has the power to stop our suffering and does nothing, that still makes him a mentally disturbed creature who has no useful place in society. Why does anyone bother worshipping a deity who isn’t protective and comforting but rather manipulative and aggressive?
Step away from that line of thinking for a moment. Those who believe have an answer for those questions and while I personally find those answers insufficient, to the extent that they provide a level of comfort and the ability to abide for those who do believe, I’m willing to let them go their own way and do their own thing. Cool. God bless you. Peace.
Hinduism takes a slightly different approach that’s a little bit closer to what we see in Taoism. Hindus believe in this thing called karma and the loose concept of karma, that one gets what one deserves, has become quite popular in modern society. For many people, the concept of karma feels like one of ultimate justice: you do bad things, bad things happen to you; you do good things, good things happen to you. Karma is actually a spiritualization of Newton’s third law of physics (though it predates Newton by several centuries): for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, the stronger the good applied, the stronger the bad returns, and vice versa.
Wait a minute. Is karma not what we think it is? No, it’s not. Western society has tried to push and pull the Hindu notion of karma to fit its own needs and desire for justice and as a result, we’ve totally ignored just how incredibly complex karma actually is. Hinduism teaches three levels of karma: satvik karma, rajasik karma, and tamasik karma. Each has a different purpose and a different outcome.
Tamasik karma is that attitude of not giving a shit and doing things regardless of the outcome. Gandhi referred to tamasik as being rather mechanical, that the wheels go round, the cogs interlink, and things happen a certain, predictable way. Right and wrong are not a consideration. The machine is designed to do a function and it completes that function regardless of what is happening around it or how it might affect things outside the machine. While there is an efficiency to tamasik in that it gets things done, there is also a cruelty in that it doesn’t give a damn who gets hurt in the process. Tamasik is therefore ultimately selfish because it cares only about doing what it is going to do; nothing else matters. Suffering is inevitable. Sucks for you.
Rajasik karma is when we do things that we hope directly benefit us. Attitude is a major contributing factor here. We might be doing things that appear superficially good, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter or serving food at a soup kitchen, but our reasons for doing so are our own, such as padding a resumé or hoping to win an award. Good actions don’t necessarily mean a good heart is attached and therefore rajasik ultimately nullifies those good actions with negative results because we did them for the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, or the life, we end up with nothing and in the Hindu belief system that results in reincarnation as a lesser being. We bring our own suffering upon ourselves.
Satvik karma is doing good things because they need to be done. One often sees the word “unattached” applied to this level of karma because one holds no personal interest in the action taken. Satvik karma is finding an animal trapped by flood waters and rescuing it even though one doesn’t especially like animals and the frightened beats kicks, bites, and claws the entire time it is being taken to safety. Satvik is wholly selfless to the point of even giving up one’s own life if doing so serves the greater good of another. Satvik doesn’t avoid suffering, mind you, but takes on suffering so that others might not experience the pain for themselves.
Where we ultimately misunderstand karma is in our expectation of consequences. Karma, like Western religions, looks outside the present life for its rewards. As Hindus believe the actions of this life determine one’s place in the next, they do not expect someone who has done bad things to necessarily receive immediate retribution. Neither do they expect good deeds to yield immediate reward. Rather, they hope for better status in the next life as they journey toward Nirvana. As a result, suffering becomes a necessary part of our existence for how we respond determines what we have in the next life.
Well, shit. Does this mean we’re just fucked all the way around?
Since I started writing this, Hurricane Irma has taken a significant shift to the West. Those whose fate seemed certain a few hours ago are seeing a different future developing before them. There is no certainty here. Some will suffer, some will not. How are we supposed to justify these seemingly random acts that lead to suffering?
Paulo Coelho took an interesting perspective in his poetic tome,
“If pain must come, may it come quickly. Because I have a life to live, and I need to live it in the best way possible. If he has to make a choice, may he make it now. Then I will either wait for him or forget him.”
There is something in that attitude that works: if something or someone is going to be a pain in the ass, let them do it and get the fuck out of the way. We have lives to lead and we need to live them in the way that does the most good.
Intrinsic to that attitude is a willingness, even an urgency, to get past whatever suffering might assail us. When we’re hit by something bad, we don’t try to get away from that bad and move on. Rather, we tend to wallow in it, looking for pity, hoping that someone else may come to our aid. As a result, we often spend much longer dealing with the pain than might otherwise be necessary.
Now, please don’t think for a moment that I’m casting any aspersions on anyone who legitimately needs help. Neither am I suggesting that we shouldn’t help someone simply because they are capable of doing things on their own. If I come across a hurricane victim repairing their home I should not pass them by simply because, “Hey, it looks like you’re doing a great job up there, buddy!” By helping the one who is capable, he completes his work and ends his suffering sooner, freeing you both to help someone less capable. There is no good reason for withholding help from anyone.
Yet, we prolong much of our own suffering because when it hits we sit there and take it. Like a young boxer surprised by a sudden blow, we hesitate, sometimes at length, before we even attempt to get back up. We push the eight count rather than getting back up and into the fight. What’s up with that? If suffering is going to come, shouldn’t we do our best to get it over with quickly so that we can get on with our lives?
Taoism teaches there are two kinds of suffering: the avoidable and the unavoidable. At first glance, we might think the two distinctions are rather obvious; the avoidable suffering is that which we bring upon ourselves, the unavoidable suffering is what happens to us through no fault of our own. To a certain extent that is true, but the picture we’re getting is not entirely accurate.
Take, for example, the spate of hurricanes we’re enduring this season. First Harvey, then Irma right behind that, and next up is Jose, right behind Irma. Aggressive weather is normally considered an act of god, something over which we have absolutely no control and to a large extent, that assessment is true once a storm forms. However, we have to ask ourselves why so many serious storms are forming? Is this an inevitable, naturally occurring weather pattern that takes place when the universe feels it necessary or might we have contributed to the core cause of the storm by warming the planet and upsetting the natural flow of those weather patterns? Scientific wisdom argues that even if the storms did form on their own, they likely would not have been as severe were it not for the ways in which we have contributed to the deterioration of the environment. If that’s the case, then the suffering caused by these storms was totally avoidable even if we didn’t realize the harm we were creating for the planet.
In considering whether our suffering is avoidable or unavoidable, we have to first step up and take responsibility not only for our direct actions and their consequences, but for indirect issues where our attitudes, gestures, or habits might influence someone or something else to take actions that might ultimately hurt us. We have to look outside ourselves and see how we influence that part of the world that, in turn, influences us. When we do, we’re likely to find that many more of our sufferings are avoidable than we might have first thought.
Ultimately, though, I question whether it makes much difference in whether pain or suffering is avoidable or not. Sure, to the extent that we can foresee that certain actions are to our own detriment, then yes, it would be foolish to not avoid those actions. Don’t run out into traffic without looking. Don’t leap from tall buildings. Don’t stick your head in the mouth of a hungry lion. Much of what might be avoidable, however, happens because of our ignorance. When we fail to understand the ways in which we are connected to the rest of the world, it is impossible for us to see how our actions influence what later comes to us as a surprise. If we don’t know that eating fatty foods increases our chance of developing Type II diabetes, then we are surprised to find we have the disease. Were we ignorant of the links between smoking and cancer, as we were for many years, we would most certainly blame other causes for a disease for which we ourselves are responsible. Our place within the universe is so incredibly interconnected that I’m not wholly convinced that we can ever say with certain accuracy that any suffering is unavoidable.
From an evolutionary perspective, suffering is not only unavoidable, it is critical to the evolution of any species. Without suffering, we have no need to improve and to evolve. Richard Dawkins put it this way:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
Looking at the matter from Dawkins’ perspective, even the avoidable becomes unavoidable because the natural status of cause and effect insist that we do and behave the way in which we are going to do and behave. Only as species adapt to the suffering and evolve do we stop sticking our heads in lions’ mouths. Suffering does not offer us the opportunity to learn. Rather, suffering sits us down on our pompous asses and insists that we learn and continues teaching us the same lessons and over until we have them completed and mastered.
I don’t like this answer to our question. I want to agree with John Green that the taste of broccoli has absolutely nothing to do with the pleasure of fine chocolate. If we reject pain, if we deny the suffering like an infant refuses to eat strained peas, then won’t the universe eventually give up and give us the bananas we were wanting instead?
No, the universe doesn’t accept us acting like spoiled brats. We’re not all that special in the grand scheme of things and there’s little question that the universe will extinguish our species should we continually try to buck the inevitable. Immortality is not something we can create without putting the entire universe at risk. Whether human or plant or insect, the answer is no, you can’t escape the suffering. Yes, this current suffering is necessary and quite probably inevitable.
I want you to read very carefully the following words. Milan Kundera, the Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote in a subsequent book, Immortality:
“I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”
One of my primary issues with religion is its insistence that suffering leads us to obedience to the deity who created the suffering in the first place. “Turn from your sins and God will remove your suffering.” The pretentiousness of such bullshit makes me want to vomit.
Yet, suffering really does lead us to deity: the deity within ourselves. In suffering, we find our true humanity, our reality, and quite possibly even our rightful place in the universe. Through suffering, we first look inward and then act outward to not only lessen our own suffering but that of others all the more so.
At the end of today’s playlist is the late Etta James singing Stormy Weather. Skip down there and listen with me for a moment. I think it is appropriate for more than the obvious reasons.
Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time
Life is bad
Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I’m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time
We grow weary of suffering. For too many, it seems as though suffering never ends, that we never can find a way of escape.
Let me encourage you, dude. Do not let your suffering drag you to the depths of despair. Rather, let it be your guide on the path to finding who you are. At the end of that path is the place where you can abide.
Abide in peace, man,
the Old Man