‘What is Suffering?’
Suffering in Essence
What is suffering? Why is it required in an individual’s life and what could possibly happen upon conceiving it, pursuing it, understanding it, experiencing it and passing it along in action? Would it lead to any insights about life and how is it supposed to be lived? Well… all of these are quite intriguing questions to reflect upon and one must consider them with keenness and adopt a skeptical approach to understand them. Suffering can be understood through various concepts and ideals such as happiness, pleasure, pain, karma, deeds and actions. Let us understand suffering by understanding Shantaram’s outlook on it and his subtle conversations and dialogical overtones with learned, young, old and men of good humor and appeal.
Shantaram, commonly referred to as ‘Linbaba’ in the local slum neighborhood of a distinctive Indian town, upon posing a simple question of what is suffering, could gather varied perspectives, world-views and opinions of what it might essentially constitute and how can one gain control over it. Disappointed and surprised by what one of the women in the slum locality he resided in had to say about suffering as that of being bound to experience it and in turn working to constantly experience it was what made him enter a state of retrospection as to what suffering truly is. Being one of the prisoners of an Australian prison and spent several years of his life within the tightly clutched cells of it, he thought he did understand suffering to some extent. He had known for a fact that not only had he suffered in the prison as a harsh consequence of his wrongdoings, all the more what bothered him was the fact that he had made others suffer out of his ignorant actions which turned malicious over time. The conversation began with Madjid presenting his views on suffering as those being confined to choices and that suffering was limited to making a decision and that those who are strong and possess control over their willingness to experience certain things or not, they won’t necessarily experience suffering, being mentally aware of their actions and possessing thoughts consistent to them, they do not experience suffering. Khaderbhai, upon listening to this answer, posed a counter question of what strength then constituted, if suffering was to do with being strong and not enduring it? Upon being conceived as petty and foolish for posing a common question, the answer of which was known to any layperson, he chose to answer it himself by stating that strength arose out of hardships, only the one who understood the intensity of hardships and had specifically paid the price of compromising their life for a brief moment under its unduly influence, would be strong in the true manner, unlike those who hadn’t experienced any sort of struggles or hardships to gain something or to necessarily work for something, thereby placing a status of hierarchy to what is less suffering and therefore weakness and what is more suffering or true suffering and therefore strength. This spells out one learning upon analyzing it, which is the fact that suffering is inevitably essential to pave the path towards strength and experiencing happiness and being in a state devoid of suffering and it is also suffering that differentiates the weak-willed from the strong. In a manner, this attempts to present a view that suffering can be understood with the attributes of strength as well as weakness, even if one of them is absent, then suffering cannot be completely conceived as a thought. Further, Abdul Ghani adds that suffering is about maturity and the process of growing up and how one constructively manages to understand suffering is inevitable and as one grows up due to increased responsibilities, increased expectations from them as an individual, they begin acceptance of whatever comes forth amidst them and learn to live moments of short-lived happiness. Those who do not realize this ironical fragility of life, suffer in ignorance and those who suffer with a self-actualized state of undergoing it, do not get affected much by it as they realize that however intense might be their reactance to it, it doesn’t cease the possibility of its occurrence. Further, coinciding suffering with anger, he explains that anger arises as a major emotion as the strongest reacting factor to suffering.
Upon debating, one explores the ideal of ‘hero curse’ which supposedly predisposes certain individuals to be born with a trait of helping others selflessly by possessing traits of courageousness, bravery, valor, generosity and a characteristic of caring more for others without thinking of oneself. This attitude might seem too optimistic and meaningful on the surface, but as Madjid remarks, it also sets the stage for the people on the receiving end of it to suffer as a result.
Another remarkable observation was presented by Sobhan Uncle, who considered suffering to eventually cease, if one is an ardent follower of the teachings of Islam and Islamic philosophy (as stated in the Holy Koran), and leads a life guided by those principles would lead to him enjoying the fruits of a good life filled with happiness and also help them reach heaven at the end of their life. After considering varied opinions and viewpoints, Khaderbhai came to his concluding remarks on suffering as that of comprising both pleasure as well as pain and that there could be pain without suffering and vice versa, i.e. suffering without pain. He further added a comment that suffering had to do with one’s love and their ability to portray their love by undergoing sacrifices, passing tests for it and that love was also related to that of God and one’s affection for God. According to him, if one hasn’t undergone suffering in his pain, then he hasn’t understood the essence of life, since it is a vital element in experiencing happiness in the most honest sense. In his words, “suffering is happiness, but backwards. Both complement each other and are mirror images of each other, neither can exist without the other.”
Well… If one has to analyze Khaderbhai’s concluding statements about suffering, then one has to understand the elements of pleasure and pain as occurring in suffering. Khaderbhai considers pleasure to be the exact opposite of pain, but then how does it come under suffering and pain, if it is the opposite of the former? Does it imply that those who do not undergo any suffering in their pain and only experience pleasure, aren’t actually experiencing pleasure or happiness in the true sense? Does it also imply that their understanding and interpretation of suffering and pleasure are flawed? Is it necessary to experience a suffering complemented by pain in order to grasp the feeling of happiness?
Suffering in Nicomachean Ethics
Yes, Khaderbhai has presented a credible approach towards happiness and thereby experiencing pain and suffering as the stepping stones towards it. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle comes to our rescue in this situation. Aristotle in his philosophical treatise on ethics titled ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ Book II Chapter 1, states that “A person is temperate if he/she possesses the capability to abstain from pleasures limited to the physical body and is aware of the necessity of abstaining it and derives pleasure from not engaging in it.” Therefore, we can understand Aristotle to be of the opinion of experiencing pleasure in the ‘true’ sense, and by true he means performing actions of virtue, which involve pleasure as well as pain but are oriented towards possessing virtues of good behaviour and morality and not guided by immediate gratification of bodily pleasures.
In order to understand suffering in a broader sense, Aristotle also states that “The one who experiences pain while encountering terrifying situations, is a coward, since he lives only for the pleasures and is disheartened with the pains.” Therefore, attempts to present a view to his readers that one cannot simply deny suffering as it is a part and progression of one’s life, but one can definitely deny suffering in pain for irrelevant and unworthy actions concerning mundaneness and worldly pleasures, largely focusing upon satisfying the physical body and ignoring virtuous behaviour. Aristotle in fact motivates his readers to suffer and also experience pleasure in the process, but of that concerning portrayal and before that, understanding of virtuous behaviour, resulting of good habits and a possession of noble and just thoughts in the mind. He simply reduces individuals getting affected by suffering which is temporary and concerns the body and a singular element of focus, i.e. themselves, as being intemperate and akratic or weak-willed and not brave enough to undergo pain associated with happiness in the true sense. Therefore, to understand what is suffering one has to take a step ahead by neglecting and overcoming pains associated with non-virtuous acts and acts of pleasing and comforting oneself and begin pursuing suffering and pain and also pleasure associated with actions concerning the goodwill of society and doing actions benefitting others more than oneself.
Upon considering Khader’s statement of suffering being associated with one’s love and love for God more importantly, we can bring Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument on God over here. Leibniz considers the fact that in order for elements to exist in the Universe, there has to be a specific reason, necessarily existing outside the Universe to be the cause of the existence of other elements. Leibniz, too like many other philosophers considers God as the Creator of the Universe and as being the cause of the existence of elements in the Universe and therefore, if we go with his proposition of God being the reason of existence of all that is, then even suffering is an attributed created by God only! Therefore, if we understand and accept suffering by not getting affected by it and in fact enjoy the pain associated with it in a temperate sense, then it justifies our love for God and to what extent can we go further to evidently portray our love by sacrificing, losing and even causing too much pain to justify its existence as apparent. Therefore suffering is created by God, it has a reason to it and isn’t compelled by any specific logical explanation of causation.
Conclusion about Suffering
To conclude, therefore suffering comprises of both pain as well as pleasure, it makes one understand the essence of true happiness as a virtue, induces individuals understanding it to pursue virtuous behaviour and justifies the presence of God outside the Universe as the Creator of the Universe, as suffering exists because God exists to create it and if he is inexistent, how can one necessarily justify the presence of suffering in their lives? It inspires me to pose the necessary skepticism of ‘what is suffering for those not considering God as existent and as that of creating the Universe, do they truly suffer or do they experience it without being in knowledge of it?’ What is pleasure for them, then, is it akratic pleasure or partial pleasure resulting out of abstaining from pain associated with being temperate? Something worth giving a thought to!