Chapel of Optimal Life

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OPINION: On The Role Of Suffering In Making Us Better People

Suffering can be a beneficial thing. It can lend deeper meaning, and ultimately greater happiness, to our lives.

This statement may appear foolish to you. You may be thinking: "This guy is deluded. He's a masochist."

Give me a chance, though.

I have thought carefully about this subject, and I believe that what I have said is the real truth.

Consider the following: "No pain, no gain" is a common saying in our society and is this truism not true?

Perhaps manageable doses of suffering act just like a vaccine.

And we all know, instinctively, that our lives improve as the result of sacrifice. We can also say that the overcoming of difficult experiences tends to make us more intelligent, more empathetic regarding the experiences of others, and more able to feel things around us.

On the opposite side of things, too, it is apparent that too much pleasure can lead to sensory deprivation; that too much comfort can make us soft; that too much ease can make us lazy.

This is all very confusing, of course. I mean, most of us take it for granted that our goal, as humans, is to be comfortable-that our goal is to avoid pain. We believe that pleasure is the goal; that happiness consists of the absence of all frustrations in our lives; that suffering is the opposite of happiness. Perhaps suffering is the opposite of happiness. But, amazingly, that is not all it is.

As we consider these things, a complex picture begins to emerge: somehow, suffering is both counterproductive to, and important to, happiness; suffering is both the foil and the fodder for happiness; it is the condition that prevents happiness, and it is also a condition that one must experience to achieve an exalted kind of happiness. How can this be? Surely, it is a paradox. Indeed, some things have paradoxical natures.

Take vaccines, for example. Vaccines introduce a small dose of disease to a person's body, which can make that person mildly ill. In the end, though, the person is strengthened against full-blown disease. Perhaps manageable doses of suffering act just like a vaccine. Perhaps each time we endure pain, we conquer it a little. Perhaps whatever it is in us that habitually resists pain-and therefore causes us to suffer-is chipped away over time by our stoicism, and eventually dissolves completely.

Interestingly, a number of religious traditions teach that this is just how things work. Chief among these traditions are Hinduism and Buddhism. These philosophies teach that suffering cannot be avoided, but that instead it must be transcended. They teach that the universe is a spiritual one, and that human beings-because we have something called Karma, or Original Sin-are temporarily held victim to the illusion of Samsara, or the idea that happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is folly, they say. We must destroy our Karma, or Sin, and thereby liberate ourselves from suffering altogether. This requires getting intimate with suffering.

What of this conundrum-what of this idea that we must "swallow the devil whole to get over him?" Can anyone make sense of it? I certainly cannot, and I think that no one can using philosophical inquiry alone. Many have tried, and many have failed. Indeed, those who claim to "know" these insights (people commonly called "saints") say that they did not figure them out-that they came to them by way of intuition, or experience. They say that this is the only way to know them. Wow.

An important question occurs to me at this point (among other important questions): How should we, as human beings, respond to sound ideas that do not fit into our grid of understanding? The great American philosopher/psychologist William James addressed this question when he famously noted that human beings, upon facing "new" truths that fall too far outside the bounds of their comprehension, tend to condemn those truths. He recommended that we overcome this habit, and that we instead remain open to new or unfamiliar ideas. He was correct. I present you with one such idea: suffering can be a beneficial thing.

Adapted from an Opinion by Danny Paul as submitted to



Comfortable Now?


Two sisters, one not so bright named Cora and one smarter named Dora, inherit the family ranch. Unfortunately, after just a few years, they are in financial trouble. In order to keep the bank from repossessing the ranch, they need to purchase a bull so that they can breed their own stock.

As she leaves for the bull ranch, the Dora tells Cora, 'When I get there, if I decide to buy the bull, I'll contact you to drive out after me and haul it home.'

Dora arrives at the man's ranch with $600, inspects the bull, and decides she wants to buy it. The man tells her that he will sell it for $599, no less. After paying him, she drives to the nearest town to send her sister a telegram to tell her the news. She walks into the telegraph office, and says, 'I want to send a telegram to my sister telling her that I've bought a bull for our ranch. I need her to hitch the trailer to our pickup truck and drive out here so we can haul it home.'

The telegraph operator explains that he'll be glad to help her, then adds, it only costs 99 cents a word. But Dora, after paying for the bull, realizes that she'll only be able to send her sister one word.

After a few minutes of thinking, she nods and says, 'I want you to send her the word 'comfortable.'

The operator shakes his head. 'How is she ever going to know that you want her to hitch the trailer to your pickup truck and drive out here to haul that bull back to your ranch if you send her just the word 'comfortable?'

The girl explains, "My sister isn't bright. The word is big. She'll read it very slowly.... com-for-da-bul."

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