“Life is suffering.” – Buddha.
The quest for a meaningful life has led us down a path past the subjects of (1) good and evil, (2) God, (3) body and soul, (4) death and immortality (5) free will, fate, and destiny, and (6) teleology. We might think ourselves done with our preparatory work until we consider the disruptive force of suffering. It may appear hopeless to postulate a meaningful life for someone with a chronic illness or continuous privation, but some readers may face that very prospect, and all of us will face some degree of suffering during our lifetimes. It is now time to address this obstacle to eudaimonia.
First, as a physician, I want to be particularly sensitive to others’ misfortunes and respect the difference in their situation versus my own and likely that of the majority of the readers. None of what follows is intended to diminish the magnitude of your hurt and anguish. Still Buddha’s observation seems irrefutable – suffering simply is an existential reality for all men even if its intensity varies among individuals and over time for each individual. Perhaps the shared human experience of suffering can lessen, however slightly, your torments.
As in other sections, I will break our discussion of suffering within a meaningful life into parts:
2) Distinction from evil and location within philosophy
3) Categories of suffering
4) Interpretations and responses
5) The opposite of happiness
6) The First Noble Truth
7) Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning
8) Illness as a force behind philosophy
We will begin by distinguishing suffering from similar concepts such as pain and evil. Then we will explore the types and forms of suffering experienced by man and the philosophical and theological interpretations and responses to suffering. After a pause to reflect on suffering considered as the opposite of happiness, we will move on to Buddha’s insight on universal suffering as the springboard to enlightenment. Next we will examine personal suffering of grief, pain, and illness through the lens of Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece of philosophy derived from his experience of intense suffering in a concentration camp. Thereafter we will look at the role of illness as an incitement to philosophy as seen for example with Seneca and Nietzsche. Last we will look at the privation of asceticism as a tool by which one may attain contentment and ultimate meaning.
The goals of this section are to demonstrate that life can be meaningful despite the inevitability of suffering, and to offer an approach for suffering persons to find meaning within their lot. Join me next time as we fine tune our understanding of the concept of suffering..