Nathanael Garrett Novosel, October 28 2020

You Were Not Born to Suffer

Freddie Mercury might have been born to love you, but you were not born to suffer.

While I try to remain objective, analytical, and dispassionate in helping people find meaning in their lives, this mistaken conclusion that people come to is reinforced by popular philosophies...and so it irritates me to no end.  Buddhism talks about dukkha, which is often translated as suffering, and how it is fundamental to life in the Four Noble Truths.  Abrahamic religions talk about suffering as often being a punishment for wrongdoing or a test from God.  Depressed individuals and cynics will point to life being full of suffering and, without a point, life is basically suffering until you die.

Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something. The Man in Black, The Princess Pride

While of course pessimistic people are going to see life that way, the assertion that life is suffering and people are, therefore, born to suffer couldn't be further from the truth.  I'd like to correct this misconception swiftly and completely with this brief explanation.

People are generally referring to two types of suffering:

Life is clearly not about either of these.  Life is not about pain; pain is simply feedback telling you not to do whatever it is you were doing or be around the thing/person that caused it.  That’s it.  You stop/get away, and your pain goes away (it’ll hurt if you touch it as a reminder to leave it be and let it heal).  Life is not about anguish, either—anguish is completely under your control.  If looking at something and it makes you feel bad, then don’t look at it.  If believing/knowing something makes you feel bad, then either don’t believe it or focus on something else.  If you want something you can’t have, then want something else or find a way to get it.  If you do any of the above, your suffering will go away, and your life will go on.

Notice how our language reveals the fact that we know life is not about suffering.  We call it “moving on” because we know that life is about growth and so suffering is the act of recoiling from a setback or harm that you have to take care of before you return to a state of growth.

Growth is the meaning of life, not suffering.  You are here to grow through experience.  Some difficult experiences may be necessary for your growth, and the people who take away the knowledge/lessons from that experience instead of wallowing in self-pity (i.e., extending their suffering indefinitely) are the ones who get the most out of life.  So stop (extending the) suffering, stop thinking that you were born to suffer, and start learning from your mistakes and growing toward your self-improved future.  There are no "brownie points" in this life (or the next, if you believe in the afterlife) for suffering more than others, and no one is better off for you doing so.  Take away whatever insights you can from negative experiences, and continue moving forward.

Note: While Buddhism focuses on desire causing suffering, self-help books focus on negative beliefs, and most people point to the experience/your behaviors as to causing your suffering, the reality that those three components are all involved.  If you change any one of them, your suffering will ease.  For example, if you can't climb Mount Everest, you will not feel any suffering if you never wanted to climb it in the first place, you don't believe that your ability to climb it is that important to you, and/or you simply aren't thinking about it.  If you really want to, believe that you can't, and continuously think about it or see other people doing it, of course you'll feel bad as a result.

To minimize suffering, simply change one or more of those three factors.  Just be careful that you don't hinder your growth in the process—the greatest successes often involve years of sacrifice, failure, and other negative experiences that, if you tried avoiding suffering altogether, you would never be able to get through.  It's that exact reason that philosophies that support negative views of suffering bother me so much: the desire-is-the-root-of-all-suffering idea might lead you to suppress your desire and not achieve what you want in life; cynics will demotivate you from continuing if you keep believing that bad things are going to thwart you at every turn; and you might waste time looking for what you did wrong if you think it's some sort of cosmic punishment.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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