The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that all life is a form of suffering. This is a heavy toll to impact on the first truth. As if the Buddha opened up his teaching with the understanding that this all sort of sucks, and that it what it is. Christ suffered on the cross, after repeatedly turning down opportunities to salvage himself from this suffering. He knew he had no choice. Abraham accepted the need to sacrifice his son. Job lived in as close to Hell as reality could ever be, and he said, “Why not Me?” Hercules was orphaned, and lived without knowledge of his real parents. Socrates was executed. Epictetus and Seneca killed themselves. Life, it seems, is not for the faint of heart.
We have all suffered our fair share. It hurts, it stings and keeps us up all night. It pains our hearts, and forces us to the brink of Nihilism. It shades every future interaction in a haze of pain and “Why am I doing this?” If you shock lab rats and study their reactions, you will see they behave in a manner that attempts to avoid the shock as much as possible, to avoid the suffering. You can literally train their behavior around the shocking stimulus. We are no different.
Suffering seems like such a painful absolute, that we behave in manners to avoid it. We hide from the clouds, and then curse the sky when they arrive. We struggle to accept that suffering and life go hand in hand, so when suffering does arrive, we blame it on whatever outside force we can, whether it be oppression, the political system, our family, our friends, our society, etc. We attempt to shelter ourselves from the reality of suffering by avoiding it at all costs, and then by blaming it on whatever exterior force we can (because if we accept that life is suffering, we accept that there is no one to blame for the pain we feel, and no one to blame for the excuses we allow ourselves to accept because of that pain. Who would want to do that?).
The question I scribbled down in my notebook was: “What would Hercules be without the monsters?” What would Jesus be without the crucifixion? Abraham without the sacrifice, Job without the pain, Gandhi without the starving? What would we be without the suffering? I asked this question, as I ran the past through my mind, like fingers pulling out grains of sand in a head of hair. Who would I be if I never suffered? If my mother never left, if my parents never divorced, if I never felt pain, or heartbreak, or obstacles, or adversity? Who would I be if I didn’t drop out of college, if I never cried out of fear, or faced circumstances that felt so overwhelming that hell seemed a better alternative?
I wouldn't be me. I wouldn’t love how I love, or live how I live. Oddly enough, the moments that, at the time, broke me to my core, are now the moments I am most grateful for. It seems, from my perspective, that we as humans are made for suffering.
Could we imagine a life without it? A life without suffering means a life without trials, without meaning. And a meaningless life is not one worth living at all. As we talked about, in the hunt for meaning, you must forgo expedience and sacrifice things in the immediate. This sacrifice is suffering.
Sometimes the Dragon kills us. Sometimes we don’t find our way out of the forest, sometimes we die. People do not always come back from Hell. But we have to keep trying regardless. A life without conquering Dragons means a life without gold. The path to the holy grail means first entering the forest at the darkest part. The achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth comes only after an intense and worthy sacrifice. We were made for this. We were made not only to suffer, but to overcome it. Because if we do not, what is the alternative? That we shy away from responsibility or meaning? That we drown our lives in bottles of nihilism? That we live in a manner where we accept ourselves as a victim of oppressive forces? That we blame the world for how we feel?
The difference between us and rats is that we know what happens when we defeat the dragon. We know what comes after the path through the forest. We know how it feels to live a meaningful life, but we also know how it feels to shy away from one. We were made to suffer. We were made to survive.