What is such an enigmatic folly as suffering? The more we abhor it, the more we bear its sting. How can we overcome it?
Plato, of ancient Greece, taught that with our physical existence, we live in a “cave” or shadowy world of change, suffering, corruption, and fragility – and the solution is to get rid of our physical existence and be liberated from this world of suffering.
In Buddhism, the “first truth” is that all life is suffering, pain and misery and can only be overcome through the Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana.
For Hinduism, suffering is a natural part of “samsara” or karmic cycle. Suffering that someone is forced to endure is thought to be the result of bad karma incurred either in this life or in a previous one.
The Stoic philosophy considers suffering as “indifferent” – it is neither good nor bad, and as such it does not deserve any meaning. A virtuous man is one who has the “will” not to be affected by suffering.
Nietzsche, existentialist philosopher, praises suffering as the means whereby a higher form of humanity (Ubermensch or “superman”) could be forged.
And in Christianity, suffering is reparation for sin. So heinous was the original crime of humanity that nothing less than the suffering of God (Christ) was required to achieve reparation for it. Christ’s suffering on the cross is thus a paradigm case of positive suffering, and every Christian is called upon to participate in it by dedicating his or her own suffering to Christ’s salvific task.
Now, is there a way to overcome suffering? Yes, by finding its MEANING.
The celebrated author of “Man’s Search For Meaning,” Viktor Frankl, said it wisely: “In some way suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”
In his incarceration at a concentration camp during Hitler’s hegemonic rule, Frankl conceived of a way of overcoming and transcending the unimaginable horrors of their confinement, helping his fellow prisoners survive by suggesting positive MEANINGS and reasons for their suffering.
Suffering, like happiness, is something subjective or relative. It lies in the one who suffers. Whether someone is suffering or not, we cannot somehow tell or judge objectively. Take the case of martyrs who endured extreme physical suffering before their death. From the point of view of an observer, it is easy to say, “Oh, how enormously they must have suffered.” On the other hand, on the part of the martyrs, maybe they did not deem the agonizing pain they went through as suffering. Like St. Lorenzo Ruiz, it is told that while he was being tortured he was joyfully singing praises to God.
Yes, we abhor suffering – that’s our basic, instinctive human reaction. But it is worth noting that those who survived extreme suffering surpassed the limits of suffering and, so, it can be said that they reached a point where they no longer suffered.
Not that I am about accepting suffering as it is. Accepting suffering for its own sake veritably smacks of defeatism, if not nihilism (that is, devoid of meaning).
Suffering is basically unacceptable especially if it is caused or arising from the evil or harmful actions of another person. But finding meaning in suffering is not necessarily accepting, tolerating or condoning the evil actions of the one who’s causing suffering. Rather, acknowledging the factual helplessness of the situation, meaning-giving in suffering is transcending or going beyond the evil roots of suffering and thus overcoming it.
Viktor Frankl, in helping his fellow prisoners scour for snippets of positivity amid their harrowing situation, was in no way subscribing to the profligate evils of the Holocaust or of Hitler’s megalomaniacal exploits. In the same vein, thus, as Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, reflecting also on the Holocaust, contends that God was silent in Auschwitz even as he claims that there is a non-theological meaning of suffering.
“Suffering is the unique possibility for overcoming the isolation that we all experience as atomistic individuals in a narcissistic society. Our encounter with the suffering of another calls upon our responsibility and awakens us to the real presence of the other in his or her need,” Levinas wrote.
In sum, therefore, suffering by itself is something negative, or “experienced” as negative. But when suffering is given meaning within a larger context, it becomes something positive. Suffering will be negative in that it hinders the fulfillment of the biological aims of the body; negative it that it involves pain or frustration over unsated desires and needs; negative in that it frustrates our practical pursuit of everyday goals. Yet it becomes positive by virtue of the meaning-giving aspect of our existence.
One final thought. From every experience of suffering, regardless of form or intensity, there is always a transcendent good, if not a higher mode of existence, that can be derived – depending on one’s faith and meaning-giving orientation.