Why do we suffer?

One point about the world that is often brought into the debate about whether God exists or not is suffering. What sort of God would watch as his creation rips itself apart with violence? What kind of God would let his followers die of pain?

The people who ask this question are often the ones that take the metaphorical version of religion – mythology – to be all there is. They imagine God to be some kind of “guy” (a big huge, all-pervading guy, but a guy nevertheless) sitting somewhere up in heaven passing judgment on all that exists in this world. They ask what he could be thinking when he unleashes terrible trauma upon them. Some imagine him taking joy in it all. As someone recently said to me on Twitter, “God, if he exists, is a sadist bastard.”

The error in this is obvious. Human beings have a bloated idea of their own importance. And our imagination assigns human characteristics to everything. So a storm becomes cruel, an earthquake becomes murderous, a wild animal is seen as a devious monster. This is mythology — a subjective way of looking at the universe. So God, according to this view, becomes something with human proportions, human attitudes, human tendencies, and even a human appearance.

More importantly though, I think what makes people complain about suffering is the belief that they are somehow the centre of the universe. It is the same belief that people had back when they thought that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around them. It is the same belief that caused Socrates to drink poison and the findings of Galileo to be challenged. They chose to look at the big picture. But people simply refuse to come to terms with the fact that they are only a small piece of a puzzle that is far greater than them.

Look around and you will find that everything suffers. The breakfast you had this morning caused some life form – either vegetable or animal – to die. Millions of germs die every time you sneeze. You hurt grass every time you walk on it. Animals either kill and eat each other, or they die of starvation. It is suffering both ways. Life progresses by feeding on itself — science calls it the food chain. That is the way the world works. You are not only suffering, you are also causing an equal amount of “suffering” to the world around you.

In fact, if you pay it even a little thought, you may conclude that this is the only way the world can work. If we use a machine metaphor for the world, we find that suffering is merely our subjective view of friction. No machine can work without friction. Things need to rub against each other, corrode each other, in order for any machine to work. Without friction, there would be no machine.

People who ask, “Why can’t all the suffering just go away? Why can’t we all just live in peace?” are wishful thinkers. They don’t realise that in order for the world to even exist, someone or the other must suffer. What we call suffering is subjective. We only get sentimental about it because it happens to us, or to creatures we include in our idea of “us”.

Oddly enough, on the human level suffering serves to enhance the imagination. It makes man aware of his smallness and helplessness. It teaches him that he doesn’t matter as much as he thought he did. It makes him humble. It seems to say, “You are no different from that baby deer in the forest who was mauled to death by ravenous lions yesterday on National Geographic. It happens to everyone and everything. Get used to it!”

A child that hates school but is made to go anyway suffers. A guy who has to put up with a sour boss in office suffers. Someone on a deathbed waiting to die of a painful cancer suffers. It is all the same thing. Some suffer more, some less. The difference is of degree, not of kind.

Interestingly, man is the only animal that can work through suffering. While a crippling disease will truly “cripple” an animal, history is full of examples of human beings who made the world a better place in spite of their own personal suffering.

The scientist Stephen Hawking is paralysed from head to toe. The great Helen Keller was deaf, mute AND blind (my imagination fails when I try to put myself in her shoes). Beethoven was deaf (and he was a musician). These people not only did things, they actually did them better than others.

Reason? They didn’t allow their suffering to drag them into selfishness. They didn’t fall into the trap of thinking that someone up there is exclusively targeting them with misfortunes. They looked beyond themselves, into the world around them and decided to contribute to the betterment of the people around them.