On Suffering

The Buddha claimed that following the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path would lead you out of suffering. All humans suffer he said, from craving, from desires. (Basic Buddhism link here) It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? To not suffer. To not be bothered by desires that go unfulfilled. I would argue however, that suffering is necessary. Suffering is a learning tool that can can have positive outcomes. Not all suffering, but some. If we look introspectively at our lives we discover that we all suffer. Most of our suffering is self imposed and could have been avoided. Some could not. Like anyone, I have had many desires throughout my life, some of which I have suffered for. But some of it was good and I learned a number of lessons from it.

When my wife died in 2017, I suffered. I grieved, and in some ways I’m still grieving two and a half years later. Grieving, at least for me, was necessary. Through the grieving process I would make the claim that I actually became closer to my wife than when she was alive. I know this sounds strange, but let me explain.

In our relationships, we have the tendency to take things for granted. We all do it. Life consists of normalcy, of routine. If we are happy in our relationship to another then we are comfortable. As my wife’s cancer progressed I was deeply involved in that process and with it consuming all my time and thought, I had little time or energy for anything else. Grieving her loss brought about a lot of memories and thoughts that probably wouldn’t have come to me if she were alive. I spent lot’s of time thinking about our relationship. The good and the not so good. I remembered minute details of her personality, things I had loved about her but had taken for granted as they became normal in my life. Now that she was gone, Those things loomed large. Had she still been with me, we both carrying on with our daily lives, these thoughts may not have come up. Through grieving, through suffering, She became closer to me, than she had while we were together. Even though we loved one another very much and had a very good relationship, we still took each other for granted. And that’s normal I guess. After she was gone I wasn’t taking her for granted anymore. She occupied my every thought by not being there and I actually felt closer to her than ever before. That suffering was important.

On September first of this year, I went on a diet. Over the last couple years I had been eating very unhealthy and not really caring much about it. I’m 5′, 8 1/2″ tall and weighed 200 pounds. I was eating restaurant meals, fast food, ice cream, pop and quite a bit of processed food. It was just easier to enjoy it, and not think about it. And I suffered for it. But that suffering was also good, as it made me realize what I was doing to myself. In the four months since September I’ve lost 34 pounds through diet and exercise. And dieting is suffering. Food craving is suffering. Hunger is suffering.

Many Americans never go hungry. I’ve always known this but it was really brought home to me the first time I became really hungry after starting my diet. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been hungry, I mean really hungry. When I was eating badly, I was never hungry. I overate my meals and had plenty of snacks in between. Hunger was not something I thought about. I had access to plenty of food. Forcing myself to eat less caused regular intervals of hunger and it helped me to realize that many people live this way every day, and not through self imposed dieting but because they just don’t have enough. Suffering in this way was and is, good. Think about it. When is the last time you were really hungry? So hungry that you felt dizzy and weak from it? Many people go hungry every day.

For these reasons and more, I believe suffering can be good. As I said, suffering is a learning tool, that teaches us about ourselves and helps bring us closer to a reality that we may never have known without it. Now, when I find that I’m suffering from something, I look for what it might teach me, what I might learn from it. I look for ways to grow through my suffering and as I do, the suffering lessons until it’s no longer suffering.

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