On suffering: Is it really worth the trouble?

Oprah and Lady Gaga may be today’s spiritual role models for self-actualization but our devotion to suffering remains a national faith.

BY JOHN PTACEK – Why did a tsunami flood Japan? Why can’t politicians tell the truth? Why did it have to rain on my wedding day?

If humans really had power, CEOs would be immune to cancer, holy men wouldn’t sin and Michael Jackson would still be alive. But we don’t call the shots.

Reality baffles us.  We question it every day and keep waiting for people to be good, for governments to be just, for life to be fair.

What we really want is for reality to be fantasy, for it to live up to our lofty expectations.  With one foot planted in reality and the other in a dream world, our lives are rooted in compromise.  Life is a chore, a problem to be solved.  It is often painful, sometimes dreadfully so.

Resigned to this suffering, we find ways to justify it.  We decide that suffering is good, even noble.  A sign of virtue.  This saintly rationalization deadens the pain, but only briefly.  Soon we are wondering why our marriages aren’t happier, why our children aren’t saying no to drugs, and why a collapsing stock market sucked our savings dry.

What is it that we never learned about reality?

That is, what didn´t we get about life as it is, and that makes us so newly frazzled by it every day? Did we sleep through the philosophy class that taught us how to appreciate it? Or the psychology class that taught us how to adapt to it?

Or maybe it was a science class we slept through.

14 billion years ago nothingness exploded into something and, following a succession of progressively conscious life forms, that something included us.  We human beings are but a single expression of life in a vast, intimately connected universe.

Or so the story goes.  Clearly we’re not buying it.  Somewhere along the line we decided that being a bit player in a tediously long evolutionary story didn’t suit our ambitions.   We wanted to be masters of the universe.  Screw evolution, it was time for us to jump the track and take control of our destinies.

Taking charge is like believing we are driving a bus on which we are merely passengers

Soon, our upright gait acquired a certain swagger.  Life wasn’t about natural law, it was about attitude.  From our new vantage point at the center of the universe, we had a much better idea of how life should be proceeding – our way.  If we wanted something badly enough, we could make it happen.  The way they do in Nike commercials.  You just have to be willing to work up a sweat.

Our attempt to subvert the will of a smoothly functioning universe had its downside, however.  It put us on a collision course with suffering.  When our Nike version of reality meets the real thing, it’s no contest.  We lose every time.  And when we lose we suffer, no matter how much we sweat.

To believe we control the movement of life is to believe we are driving a bus on which we are merely passengers.  We feel as if we are in control when the bus takes us where we want to go, but when it keeps chugging merrily on its way despite our attempts to turn or stop or slow down, we are incredulous.  We grip the frozen steering wheel and stare helplessly out the windows muttering that teenagers shouldn’t be having babies, corporations shouldn’t be exploiting legal loopholes for profit, and a cure for cancer should have been discovered by now.

Life asks many things of us, but suffering for our delusions isn’t one of them.  The biggest delusion is that life should unfold in ways that make us happy.  Since we weren’t even around when life began, our happiness could hardly have been a bullet point in its mission statement.  Finding happiness is our job, and there’s more of it to be found when we meet life with open arms rather than with a fistful of angry questions.

John Ptacek questions conventional wisdom and thinks you should too. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Kitty and not far from his handsome son Joe. His essays appear on his website, On Second Thought, www.johnptacek.weebly.com.

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One Response to “On suffering: Is it really worth the trouble?”

  1. Nice to have you in our pages, John! You’ve inspired me to get in touch with my inner quadriped…