What is the Purpose of Suffering
“If you don't get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”
Wow! That’s a heavy question! It is also an age old question. I don’t know that this one can ever be answered to the satisfaction of the sufferer, but let’s take a look at it and see if we can make any sense of it at all.
As Socrates suggests, it seems suffering is inevitable and unavoidable. From the moment of birth when the baby is slapped so it will cry and take air into its lungs until the last breath is expelled at death, we can expect to suffer repeatedly, though hopefully not constantly. No one escapes suffering. Furthermore, when people suffer they always suffer as a whole human being, body, mind and spirit. So, not only do we all suffer, every part of us suffers.
Suffering comes in all kinds of forms and sizes, if you will, from worldwide to very personal. Wars. Plagues. Weather crises or natural disasters. Broad scale epidemics. Emotional anguish. The loss of something cherished. The exhaustion of caring for another person. The burdens of work. The monotony of routine. Sometimes our suffering is caused by others; sometimes we bring it on ourselves. Sometimes the cause is accidental; sometimes it is intentional.
It seems to me that in and of itself, suffering is neutral. In and of itself, it serves no purpose. Any purpose is imposed by the attitude of the sufferer or maybe by the person or persons inflicting the suffering. Let me give some examples here to explain this thought.
Let’s look first at suffering caused intentionally by someone else. Our judicial system deals in crime and punishment. A murder has been committed. From the perspective of the murderer, the purpose of the suffering of the victim might be to cover other crimes, to afford revenge or to exact “justice” outside the system. An interrogator will cause discomfort or even pain and suffering to extract information. The victims of crime may see the suffering as totally senseless. The sentence imposed after a conviction will likely cause suffering to the criminal. Is its purpose punishment or rehabilitation or justice or the safety of the community?
In war, both sides will claim the suffering they inflict is justified, though the people on the ground would not think so. Historically, the Jews have been conquered and sent into exile time and time again. Again historically, they have tended to see that as punishment for having turned away from God and a motivation to correct their behavior and reconcile their relationship.
When donated food and medical supplies are left to rot on the docks undistributed by the government of a poverty stricken country, it is difficult to imagine any worthy purpose for the suffering.
The accidental and seemingly indiscriminate suffering caused by weather or natural disasters, while still great, seems in some ways easier to bear and sometimes even inspirational. The victims were not targeted by another person. The disaster was most likely unpreventable. Mother Nature had no purpose in mind. We generally know the natural risks for our geographic location: floods, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides… Sometimes we can anticipate and mitigate the suffering, but almost always, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again with renewed vigor and determination. While that does not define the purpose of the suffering, our attitude toward the suffering and the resulting determination can give us purpose.
What about when suffering is self-imposed? You might ask, who in their right mind would intentionally self-impose suffering? Athletes would cause personal pain to build muscle mass and endurance. The sick might happily take medication with bad side effects in the hope of weakening or curing some other disease process. A person might fast for a political cause or to cleanse their body. Religious through the centuries and penitents of the past and present alike often self-impose sufferings to discipline their minds, bodies and spirits for the purpose of self-mastery and spiritual advancement. Christians view suffering as redemptive. According to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”
So even seemingly senseless suffering can have purpose. That purpose might be defined by either the one inflicting the suffering or the victim of the suffering. Purpose imposed by the one inflicting suffering does not define the purpose for the one who suffers. Each one who suffers chooses whether their suffering is senseless or whether it can hold some greater purpose. In my view, whether it is an intended purpose or not, suffering changes a person or a community or a nation. The purpose given to the suffering indicates the direction the suffering will take us. It has often been repeated that suffering can make you bitter or it can make you better. Only you can define the purpose of your suffering and only you can determine how it will change you. As Socrates said, “Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”
One parting thought for those who are suffering now comes from this old proverb whose source has been attributed to many nations, “Joy shared is doubled; sorrow shared is halved.” Share generously!