Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Even with the extraordinary advances we in the developed world have made in the quality of daily life, few would deny the suffering that continues to dominate our horizons. In addition to the endless conflict, starvation, and natural disaster we see on the nightly news, most of us need look no further than our own neighborhoods or even our own homes to find human misery in abundance.
As much as we all strive to avoid it, the simple truth is that humanity needs suffering. It is through hardship and reversals of fortune that we are roused from our complacency and the unconscious patterns we are prone to settle into. It is suffering that shakes us up and clears our vision. When everything in our lives is going well, we can become so engrossed in trivial preoccupations that we lose touch with what is important. Success strengthens our identification with the self and keeps us from transcendence. We have no motivation to find something better.
If, however, we are suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with our mortality and the transience of all we cherish, we are forced to recognize life’s preciousness and seek its meaning. As it is said, we are jolted awake by nightmares, not by pleasant dreams. The need to redecorate the house, so pressing yesterday, fades quickly into the background. Friction with friends over petty irritations is forgotten. Bank accounts and promotions at work lose their relevance in contrast to our new life-and-death challenges. The explanations we were given by our parents to make sense out of things, though they satisfied our previously superficial inquiries, often come up short in life’s most difficult times. We seek answers to what seems so wrong about life.
We are the victims of mistaken identity. When we are born, our vision is fresh. The world as we first experience it is undifferentiated and timeless, and we have no real perception of self or other. We can see the magic of life without filters and become totally lost in fascination, one with our surroundings. But then we are educated, and learn to see ourselves as separate from everything and everyone in a sharply defined piecemeal view of reality that makes up our modern culture. Conceptual habits become unconscious assumptions that automatically frame our reality. We live within the confines of a hand-me-down view of the world that everyone around us shares, and we never even suspect the possibility of seeing in another way. To regain the wholeness that is our birthright, we must examine the assumptions that blind us to it, and it is suffering that motivates us to do so.
There is a timeless story about a fish in search of the great ocean of life. Oblivious to the water all around it, the fish swims great distances in its quest, with no results; it cannot find the ocean anywhere it looks. The fish is living in the ocean, but doesn’t realize it. If the fish were rudely yanked out of the water on a fisherman’s hook, however, the elusive goal would suddenly become obvious: water is its very life. Our experience is quite similar. We are immersed in life, in the flesh and blood of our existence, but blindly seek fulfillment elsewhere. We spend most of our lives in mental games and abstractions, puzzling over what life means, while the truth is all around us. We simply need to wake up and smell the proverbial roses. This is it! Just this. Yet we often don’t realize it until, like the hapless fish, we find ourselves out of our element, gasping for air.
When suffering abruptly interrupts the normal flow of things and shakes us out of our routines, it is an opportunity to see life from a deeper, more substantive perspective – but one we often miss. How many of us fail to see the truth of life until we are close to death? Then the simple sound of a bird’s song or the smell of baking bread can bring us to tears. Some fish are thrown back and get a second chance, but it is very risky for us to count on such a reprieve.