Are we doomed to suffer? There seems to be widespread belief that suffering is the nature of human experience; (a) we are all born sinners afflicted with original sin; (b) we are bound within the circle of Samsara where our attachments breed suffering; (c) we lack emotional intelligence and maturity; (d) we seek relief from suffering in ways that create more suffering; (e) etc.
The arguments are pervasive, both rational and metaphysical. The consensus seems to be that suffering is inescapable; accordingly, the question arises what’s to do about it?
For an answer, let’s establish a hierarchy of suffering by dividing it into physical, and mental categories. Physical suffering, as those of us know who have hit our finger with a hammer, includes the direct sensory experience of pain. Similarly, the ache of starvation, debilitating physical disability, and illnesses like cancer all legitimately qualify as physical suffering.
Mental suffering is more difficult to define, ranges across the emotional spectrum and falls into its own hierarchy. The clearest form of mental suffering are psychopathologies such as schizophrenia, bulemia, disabling depression, uncontrollable aggression, drug and alcohol addiction, and forms of self-inflicted physical injury. Less clear are forms of mental suffering like extreme narcissism, sadism, masochism, sexual addiction, and gambling. Finally, the least clear forms of mental suffering include feelings like disappointment, greediness, envy, anger, jealousy, shame, etc., what Buddhists lump under the moniker of “the 84,000” types of emotion.
The lower the position in the hierarchy of suffering, the less obvious are the ways to get a grip on it, so let’s start with physical suffering. To feed a starving man, for example, seems a simple way to relieve suffering, but there’s even argument about that: the danger of enabling. Enabling, the argument goes, means if you feed the starving they will come to depend on help, and will fail to make efforts of their own to feed themselves. The same goes for healthcare. This was the position taken by British members of Parliament in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s eerily similar to the position taken by America’s current congressional majority. Thus relieving even the most clear-cut and obvious forms of human suffering are often subject to political debate.
Relief for the hierarchies of mental suffering today relies on the use of prescription drugs or various forms of psychological therapy. In such cases, price and availability are the determining factors, which is in part why America is currently suffering an “opioid crisis.” If therapeutic help is unavailable or financially out-of-reach, and the cost of legitimate pharmaceuticals too high, people in emotional distress turn to what they can afford. That craving opiates creates terrible suffering of its own is no barrier, and the same is true of alcohol. Suffering is always in the present moment, even if it’s about fears of the future or painful memories of the past.
For some, religion addresses present suffering by offering something much better in the future “afterlife.” This argument in favor of death works surprisingly well, and speaks to how difficult people’s lives can be and feel. For the rest of us, however, visions of the afterlife offer little in the way of relief. Suffering is now, and that’s when most of us want to relieve it.
Confused? Forget the arguments and follow your heart. Feed the hungry and comfort those in need.