Suffering and the Human Condition

It is important to distinguish between evil and suffering. Suffering is not evil. Suffering is the experience of evil. The man who cannot see suffers in his blindness; his suffering is the experience of his lack of sight. Suffering is a concept that is often misunderstood and mistaken for evil.

Consider pain. Both pleasure and pain exist for positive reasons; they are positive realities. Pain is a signal to a person that something is wrong. If one touches a hot burner on a stove, for example, he will experience pain, and quickly pull his hand away from the burner, avoiding further damage to the body. The pain in this case has a positive and saving effect.

Pain for no reason can be an evil. If one experiences pain that is not a signal of something wrong, then the cause of the pain is an evil and the experience of it is suffering.

Karol Woltyla, better known to millions as (Pope) Saint John Paul II, was head of the global Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005. He believed firmly that suffering, experiencing natural evil as described in Lecture Notes: Good, Evil, and Motivation, was part of the human condition. He wrote in his Papal Letter Salvifici Doloris,

“What we express by the word ‘suffering’ seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.”

Woltyla was so married to this belief that after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, he insisted on continuing public his ministry, which he did until his death in 2005. He suffered publicly; trembling, stumbling, even wiping drool from his chin so people would see the wholeness of humanity in him.

The Buddha declared, “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach,” approximately 2500 years ago. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, simply put, is that suffering (dukkha) is part of the human condition. As explained by the BBC :

Suffering comes in many forms. Three obvious kinds of suffering correspond to the first three sights the Buddha saw on his first journey outside his palace: old age, sickness and death.

But according to the Buddha, the problem of suffering goes much deeper. Life is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.

Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, but even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last; or if it does, it becomes monotonous.

Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled, unsatisfied. This is the truth of suffering.

Some people who encounter this teaching may find it pessimistic. Buddhists find it neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. Fortunately the Buddha’s teachings do not end with suffering; rather, they go on to tell us what we can do about it and how to end it.

When one considers Woltyla’s assertion that suffering is part of being human and the Buddha’s assertion of the same, alongside the argument that assisted suicide relieves suffering, a vital question remains. We are left questioning whether ending a life to alleviate suffering robs one of his very humanity.

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