Is Suffering Optional?

Is suffering optional, as a common Internet meme would have it? I don’t know, but it does seem like one of humanity’s deepest existential questions.

We all suffer. Sometimes more in certain times of our lives than in others. And some people seem to endure more suffering than others. But it’s a human universal, which is probably why it’s at the very heart of some of the world’s great religions.

Suffering as Sacrifice

El Greco – Christ on the Cross

Take Christianity. Its very emblem is a cross, a vehicle for suffering. The idea is that God suffered and, indeed, died for our sins. Through some miracle of God’s mercy, human sins are expiated through Christ’s sacrifice, allowing believers to enter in Heaven where there is, presumably, no more suffering.

At least that’s how I remember it from my Episcopalian upbringing.

Inspired by Christ’s sacrifice, some Christian traditions advocate “offering up” human suffering to others. “Offering up our suffering is a powerful way to become like Christ and love others as He loves them,” reports The Bishop’s Bulletin. “Becoming like Christ and loving like He does is what we were created to do. We are called to love in a radical way, like the divine Son.”

So suffering, if it is offered up as a sacrifice, takes on a religious meaning all its own. It becomes an act of devotion.

Suffering as Optional

Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama, by Nyo.

Then there’s Buddhism. The story goes that Gautama was a prince brought up in such a way that he would never have to encounter human suffering. The sick, the handicapped, the unhappy: all were banished from his royal world.

Until one day he came across true human suffering, and he was utterly shocked and touched by it. So, it became his goal life to eliminate all human suffering.

This seems like an impossible challenge, but Gautama (who became the Buddha) claimed to have found a way. That way became the essence of Buddhism. In fact, all of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths are related to suffering:

1) The truth that suffering exists
2) The truth that desires and ego-driven attachments cause suffering
3) The truth that the cessation of suffering is possible when you rid yourself of ego-attachments and so are able to attain Nirvana
4) The truth of that there’s a path (the famous Eightfold Path) leading to Nirvana

Buddha’s High Bar

The Internet meme to which I was referring is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It’s not clear where it originally comes from, but novelist Haruki Murakami did indeed write, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.”

Clearly, however, the idea is inspired by Buddhism’s notion that one can rid oneself of suffering. That is, if you can attain Nirvana, you’re able to dodge the suffering bullet.

Which sounds pretty appealing except, well, you know, achieving Nirvana is a very high bar to jump. And, assuming it’s possible, how many have ever arrived? How would we even know if they had?

Can We Reduce Suffering?

So, let’s sum up. First, suffering sucks. Second, you can, in theory, attach meaning to suffering to make it suck less. Third, you can even ditch suffering entirely, also in theory, if you have what it takes to become enlightened. At that stage, suffering doesn’t suck at all. It becomes an illusion.

But is there anything beneath all this religion-based theory? Maybe so. Here’s how psychologist Anthony Burrow describes an experiment in which he was involved:

In this particular experiment, after writing about, either [a] movie that they had seen or their sense of purpose, individuals traversed a steep incline, and as they arrived at the top, we asked them to report, how steep was this hill and how much effort did it take them to get to the top? Now, for those individuals who had written about the most recent movie they had seen, there was a pretty clear, positive correlation, or a strong relationship between how steep they thought that hill was and how much effort they thought it took to get to the top. Whereas, individuals who had written about purpose briefly before traversing this incline, when they got to the top, they showed less of a relationship between the estimated incline of the hill and how much effort they said it took to get to the top.

So, maybe a sense of purpose can help reduce the sense of effort associated with a task And maybe effort can be a proxy for suffering. And maybe “offering up” one’s suffering not only helps people make sense of suffering but, by providing a sense of purpose, reduces suffering itself.

Photo of Chris Falter of Dharmachakra (which symbolize the Eightfold Path) on Jokhang temple Lhasa / Tibetwheel of dharma

A lot of maybes there, but let’s tack on a few more. Maybe you don’t need to arrive in Nirvana-land to make a dent in suffering. Maybe a hike up the mindful path (for example, by engaging in meditation) can reduce suffering even if it can’t eliminate it. Indeed, this seems to be among the underlying assumptions of Buddhism.

Now, I don’t honestly know how much any of this can help people in genuine distress. Is it literally possible, for example, to be in deep physical pain without suffering? That seems unlikely to me, but then again I am far from being in any state of Christian grace or Buddhist enlightenment.

Perhaps the folks who’ve attained sainthood or hiked far up the Eightfold Path could say for sure.

Featured image: Painting by Nicholas Roerich “Buddha Victorious” (Series "Banners of the East). 1925. Canvas, tempera. 74.2x117.7 cm. International Roerich Center, Moscow Date 1925 Source Russian: Эстонское общество Рериха English: Estonian Roerich Society