This blog looks at ways in which the history of living things may be relevant to people’s largest questions about life. One of these questions is how to cope with suffering. Modern secularism and traditional religions differ widely in what they have to say about suffering. I suggest that a broad view of the evolution of all living things offers a middle ground.
Modern creeds don’t say much about how to endure or make sense of suffering. American Humanism, with its focus on ethical values for better lives and the good of humanity, mentions “methods of dealing with life’s harsher realities” in its introduction to religious humanism. Naturalism, as presented at naturalism.org, focuses on the physical world and the rejection of supernaturalism without discussing suffering. Some secularists, however, look back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who recommended reducing one’s suffering by cultivating an attitude of robust tranquility, leading a stable life with good friends, and not relying on the gods. His advice still gets respect.
But most people who seek to understand their suffering look to religion. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths place suffering at the center: life is suffering, the source of suffering is attachment, and detachment is achievable. For Hindus, suffering results from past errors but is also a motivation for spiritual progress. The Christian Bible’s many stories of suffering are epitomized in the lesson of Job, whose miseries and supplications lead only to the moral that God is too great to be understood and is not obligated to explain suffering to Job or anyone else. Good behavior and right belief, in other words, don’t guarantee that we won’t suffer, for suffering may be completely undeserved.
Is there a view of suffering that is more empathetic than “methods for dealing with harsh realities” and yet remains within the bounds of secular thinking? A view of suffering with some of the comforting grandeur of the religious vision but also with a foundation in science?
The history of life offers a path to explore. From this point of view, human suffering is only one instance of the adversity faced by all living things, including plants and animals. “Suffering” itself is an awareness; it requires consciousness. But the onslaughts to well-being that provoke such suffering—the diseases, injuries, competition, hostilities, and changing environment—plague every single thing that lives. Only humans and some animals suffer, but all of life struggles.
Would this view console someone who is battling with cancer or severe drought or domestic violence? Probably not. To find consolation in the midst of such miseries, we need connections to our own kind.
But when we try at calmer moments to understand suffering and bolster ourselves to withstand it, we can hold in mind that its roots are shared by all living things. My recent bout with heart disease and heart surgery did indeed widen my empathy for others’ difficulty and bring me closer to certain people. If our suffering can easily add to our empathy for other humans, imagine the connection we might also feel for the struggles of all life.
While only the anxious woman might be said to feel suffering, both she and the diseased tree are struggling for existence.
What is suffering actually? Is it relative to what we’re used to?
Suffering usually means prolonged pain, whether it’s emotional or physical or social. Cancer and other painful diseases qualify, schizophrenia usually means suffering from the voices in your head, and the people of Syria are suffering under Assad’s bombings. So, in a sense it’s relative to what we’re used to but not in the way that “discomfort” can be just a change from the normal. Suffering is on-going pain.