Is there value in our suffering? Suffering is built into our existence as humans. We suffer loss of loved ones, pain, depression, sadness, anger, natural disasters, man-made disasters, violence on a personal and mass scale… we suffer. What’s the point? And what’s the value in it? If I asked my aunt, who has suffered from depression for over a decade, she would wonder at there being any good reason for her pain. But life is peaks and valleys, and without the valleys, the dips, there can be no joy in the peaks. It’s the contrast that brings us richer, more rewarding experiences. Savor the contrast in life and you’ll find the sweetness, the happiness.
Most suffering is the result of taking ourselves too seriously. (Boy, am I guilty of this!) Believing we should be better, stronger, richer, more famous, more successful, younger, better looking, something other than what we are. Believing that we’re supposed to be in a bigger house, a fancier car, a more prestigious job, we’re supposed to be living a different life. This should be and supposed to be thinking causes our own suffering. And that’s suffering that we can alleviate by releasing resistance, and finding acceptance. Accept the contrast in our lives. But what about when a child we love dies, a part of the world we cherish is destroyed by an earthquake, a tanker leaks millions of gallons of oil into the sea, killing plants and animals, a dictator brutally bombs his own people? What about that suffering? What’s the value in that?
Perhaps it’s time we took a look at how Buddhists view suffering and accept it as part of life, even the awful things that happen, because they do happen, and they will happen. Perhaps it’s time to see suffering as something that shows us what’s important in life. As Pico Iyer wrote last Sunday in the New York Times: “I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency.” Perhaps the biggest danger in suffering is not learning from it. If all we see is the pain then we miss the possibility of something really interesting happening. Something like enlightenment.
Not that I mean to be flip about it or that I practice what I write. I certainly spend time bemoaning things that have happened. And I’m dealing with my own anger and fear and resentment at the suffering I’ve created in my life and at the things that have befallen me. And yet, I can sometimes find a grace. I can only imagine that grace is an acceptance. A time where I can (honestly) say, “all right, this is where I am right now, and this is what is happening, and I’m ok.” A time where I lean into it, instead of crying about how it could have been. And this is when something transcendentally beautiful happens. Something small maybe, like seeing a hawk soar past me. Maybe this is when I’m most present. And maybe that’s the value of suffering – it makes us present. Ironically, when I’m present I’m not suffering.
As Iyers writes: “…suffering is reality, even if unhappiness need not be our response to it. This makes for what comes across to us as uncomplaining hard work, stoicism and a constant sense of the ways difficulty binds us together…” In Japan where Iyers has lived, “the national worship of things falling away in autumn, the blaze of cherry blossoms followed by their very quick departure, the Issa-like poems on which they’re schooled — speaks for an old culture’s training in saying goodbye to things and putting delight and beauty within a frame. Death undoes us less, sometimes, than the hope that it will never come.” There is always time to appreciate the beauty of life, in the moment. It will be gone. But there will be another moment after that one and something else will happen. Life is peaks and valleys. Learn to love the contrast, that’s been my lesson.
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About the Author: Tania Van Pelt is the creator of Happiness Series. She is a writer and content creator, working in film, tv, and online. She wrote the popular lifestyle book "Ageless Diet," published in late 2015. And she is currently working on her next book. She also developed a sitcom pilot set in the restaurant business called "Employees Only TV" and is developing another web series comedy about Denver.