I’ve been concerned about suffering since I was eight, and I went to a friend’s Baptist church with her. They had fun games about remembering things from the Bible, and—always the showoff when it came to learning—I enjoyed those games. But though I had a good time, I declined to go with her again. And soon, I declined to go to the Sunday school classes at our own Episcopal church. When my mother asked me why, I said, “I don’t know about a God who is supposed to be all-powerful but still lets animals and little kids get hurt.” I was lucky: my mother let me out of the classes, only if I sat quietly in church during the grown-up part of the service, next to her.
I never did know about that God. I loved the language of the King James Bible, and many of the verses, particularly the Psalms. I liked singing hymns, especially at Christmas. But I could not find faith, when logic would not reconcile the things this religion told me. The closest I came was when I taught a survey literature course in Southern Illinois and the Old Testament was part of the curriculum. I had to teach the Book of Job.
The suffering of Job
One aspect of Job is the awful bet that begins the book, where God brags about Job’s extreme faith and goodness, and Satan says (and feel free to imagine this in a needling, snide voice), “Yeah, that’s only because you’ve given him all good things.” God then says, “Oh yeah? Well, do whatever you want to him. He’ll still be a good guy.” And that’s how Job’s suffering begins. Because of this bet—precisely because he remains good, you might say—he loses everything, including, eventually, his friends, his reputation, and his health. And reading it is truly horrifying, particularly if you think about people you know who are good, kind, generous, and thoughtful, and how those people have suffered and are suffering. The book seems to make my childhood point for me: it shows an all-powerful, all-knowing God who not only allows suffering, but seems to incite it. And all during his suffering, Job’s “friends” come and tell him to stop complaining; they won’t listen to his understandable anger and confusion over this unfairness. Poor Job! Poor us, humans left in the hands of a cruel and capricious god.
For some people, the answer comes directly from God, close to the end of the book of Job, when God gets tired of Job’s complaining and (perhaps to prevent him from doing what God told Satan he would never do, and cursing God’s name), God comes down to give him a direct talking-to. What does God say? Basically that Job wasn’t there when God created everything, set up the world and chilled out with monsters and angels—that God’s understanding is so complex, subtle, and deep that there is no way Job could understand all of God’s ways. It’s just not possible. It would be like trying to explain economic theory to your dog.
Ok. Ok. So if you can block out your prior literary knowledge here—that Job’s suffering is the result of a bet between God and Satan—that actually makes sense. The likelihood that a being powerful enough to create the world would be beyond our understanding is pretty high. In the context of suffering, it is the only thing that makes sense; certainly we can look around us and see numerous people whose goodness should make them prime candidates for receiving good, and numerous people whose evil should make them prime candidates for receiving evil, and observe that this is not what happens.
Buddhism’s take on suffering
What I like about the basic idea of Buddhism is that there’s no pretense that good behavior will get you good things in life. The Buddha just says, “Yeah, human existence cannot be separated from suffering. Life is suffering. So I’m going to give you some tools for making that suffering less.”
All right. Yes, I said all right. Because this no bullshit approach sounds absolutely true to me. I’m a very sensitive person who has suffered from depression since my teens. I not only sob when I witness suffering, like a squirrel hit by a car, but also when I hear about suffering. And then I spiral down into the dark, wondering what the point of all this is, feeling my insignificance in the universe, deciding that I actually cannot stand the suffering, and the unfairness. If I put the additional pressure on myself of believing that, if I were only better in some (or numerous) ways, I wouldn’t suffer, then I can’t move. The weight is too much. Suffering is down to me? It’s my fault? I can’t live with that.
What I can live with is a world largely indifferent to my suffering and the suffering of others. A universe with its own systems, and a body and brain set up to be particularly attentive to the passing of time. Hey, we evolved to be like this—ruminating on the past, to see what we learned, and worrying about the future, so we know what to avoid. This all happened so we could stay alive.
But now, we suffer when we spend all our time in the past or the future. A bill from the doctor’s office doesn’t hurt us in the present; it is our regrets about the past (Should I have not gone to the doctor? Not spent that money in that way last month?) and our fears about the future (If I pay the bill now, will I have enough for rent?) that make us suffer.
Life’s going to suck sometimes
Which is where meditation comes in. I want to be clear: meditation doesn’t take away the bill. I don’t subscribe to the “meditate and you’ll draw good things to you, including money and success” set of beliefs. Basic Buddhist ideas work best for me: life is going to suck sometimes, and you’re going to suffer. Most of that stuff will be out of your control. So what can you do? Try to modify your reactions to what happens.
So when you get that doctor’s bill, you’re going to have a reaction. That’s a feeling, and you can’t control it. It’ll be a sinking feeling, or a feeling of sadness or even anger. Notice the feeling, have the feeling, but separate the feeling from all the thoughts that will come afterwards. Meditation helps you do this, and it helps you practice nonjudging. Because if you refuse to judge yourself, then the thought, “I shouldn’t have spent that money last month” can be just a thought, noticed and watched as it floats past on your river of thoughts. You can, in fact, significantly lessen your own suffering by not judging yourself based on that thought. Instead of chasing after that thought, telling yourself, “I should have known; I should have saved,” you remember that you not only couldn’t know about the future doctor visit, you couldn’t control yourself getting sick. Translation: this is not your fault. This is just one of those sucky things that happens because the universe sometimes gives you sucky things.
Freeing yourself from the blame and self-judgment amounts to a real lightening of the load of your own suffering. It’s like magic! Only it isn’t magic. Human nature, capitalist culture, modern technology, and more make it particularly difficult to separate yourself from judgment and from the illusion of control. It’s hard to give yourself even a few moments of quiet time to think, to remind yourself to notice your thoughts and feelings without judging them, or yourself for having them. That’s why people have meditation practices, because a practice is something you try to do on a regular basis. It helps us actually take the steps that will make us better at doing something we know we want to get good at.
Perhaps the Buddhist approach to suffering is, in fact, a bit like that answer towards the end of Job, where God says that we simply cannot understand God’s ways. In both cases, we must accept our limitations—we are not all-knowing nor all-powerful—and devise ways to meet the uncertain with equanimity. People with religious faith and those who don’t claim a particular faith can all benefit from a new way of seeing, and responding to, suffering.
Depression and suffering
And for those of us who struggle with depression, it is even more essential to come to different terms with suffering. Without some handle on it, the specter of ending our suffering in a permanent way rises regularly, even daily. But we can endure, I believe. I have endured, and you will, as well. Your suffering is not your own fault. Remember that, however you can. And try to practice meditation, if only for the hope of a few moments relief. It has worked for me. It is not a cure, but it is a tool I would not have survived this long without. Both this perspective on suffering and the practice of meditation have also—you can trust me on this, because I absolutely admit to the inevitability of the dark times and the sucky events you cannot control—brought me times of joy. I promise you, joy is possible, even given the inevitability of suffering. You can feel the whole range of human emotions, including joy. That’s where I hope to take you, in my writings: on this slow, fitful journey with me, where we recognize, together, that our lives have worth.