On human suffering

Published July 10, 2024
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

ONE of the most enduring mysteries of life is the capacity of human beings to believe that everything will go well. Most of us grow up imagining that the course of life will proceed without any hiccups. It is this belief that things will proceed as we expect them to that inevitably is the material of tragedy. It is as if we walk along the path of life and expect that we will proceed on course without many hurdles — and when a wild animal jumps out of the bushes and confronts us, we are frightened and eventually disappointed.

The difference between what we expect of life and what life dispenses during our journey is the measure of human suffering.

Another one of the ironies of life is that even though we all confront surprises along our path, and thus experience suffering, we somehow imagine suffering to be unique to ourselves. When faced by unfortunate events, such as the loss of a loved one, an unexpected illness, being fired from a job, etc, we automatically ask ourselves what it is that we have done to deserve sorrow, illness or anxiety.

We review our actions; we consider our decisions, and we imagine that we have tremendous control over averting unexpected events in the future. This is simply not true; life is as it is, and living involves having to put up with unexpected events that will inevitably befall us.

The story of our suffering or the narrative around it is entirely within our control.

This is not to say that suffering is futile or that we have no control over it. The story of our suffering or the narrative around it is entirely within our control. If we submerge ourselves in its specifics, in the unfairness of it all, in the feeling that it is exclusive to us then the impact of suffering is to isolate us from the rest of the living beings who surround us.

One example of this can be found in Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The novel is told from the perspective of a man who knows that he will soon die. Because of this, he is on his sickbed alone while life goes on around him. Instead of considering the remainder of his time as precious, he is immersed in self-pity, and feels like

his family members including his wife are already planning for a life without him. He feels that there is no one at all who understands how he feels.

All of it is, of course, interpretation and perspective. Such are the delusions of self-pity that they blind him from considering things from the perspective of others. He cannot, for instance, see the fear his wife has of becoming a widow and for having to provide for the family and for her children by herself. He cannot see the concern of his children who now have to deal with the prospect of being orphans. Instead, he does what we all do — we place ourselves at the centre of the drama that is life and imagine all others as incidentally present and beyond the suffering that is so real in our own case.

If the narrative and interpretation that we impose on our lives is of such crucial importance, then it follows that literature is of greater service to the task of living life than most people might think. The central goal of good literature is to enable the reader to do what may otherwise be impossible, ie, to inhabit the life of another person.

In this sense, good literature provides, at least to an extent, an escape from the self and a chance to immerse ourselves in perspectives and narratives other than our own.

In a secondary sense, literature equips those that read it with an ability to create more varied narratives about their own lives; it enables flexibility and variety in interpreting suffering in a constructive way. The greater our ability to inhabit the lives of others, the more we can escape our own self-centredness and the limiting belief that it is only our own suffering that is real. The more we can understand that suffering unites all human beings and that all of us are in some way or another engaged in struggles, the more likely it is that we can endure life without becoming bitter and intransigent in the face of constant change.

It is a testament to the curious psychology of human beings that we persist in believing that if we can somehow amass enough wealth, or have a certain number of children or marry the right partner that we can put an end to suffering in our lives. Our behaviour resembles that of a baby sitting on a high chair, who drops an object but then begins to cry when he can’t retrieve the object. Yet when you give the object back to the baby he will often drop it again.

The experience of suffering or pain is in this sense dependent on the absence of pain — we only know freedom from suffering because of the existence of suffering.

None of this makes life’s challenges any easier when we are in the midst of them. The more focused we are on ourselves the more acute suffering can be; the more focused we are on the good of others the easier it is to endure life’s challenges.

One antidote to suffering then is to cultivate the selflessness that comes from focusing on the greater good. Few of us can achieve this, sadly, and so most of the rest of us plod on wearily on the path of life, deluded into believing that once we achieve X or Y or Z we can somehow avoid the curveballs thrown our way and the catastrophes whose regular occurrence is an ironic testament to the fact that we are indeed alive.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2024

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