Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Suffering But Was Afraid to Ask

I'm not a Buddhist nor am I a Christian, but there are a few ideas from the Buddhist philosophy with which I can more easily relate. I recently had a conversation with a devout Christian who was suffering immensely from the tragic loss of an eye. She was clearly depressed and no amount of faith seemed to give her hope, because her prayers had failed to intervene with the god she claimed to trust. 

Leaning heavily on the idea that god hears her prayers, she also stubbornly clung to the contrary idea that god's will is supreme. 

She tearfully explained to me that although god chose not to save her eye, he did intervene so that the malignancy in the eye had not spread to other parts of her body. Apparently, god allowed the loss of the eye in spite of the prayer warriors that were beating on his door for help. She had enlisted an entire team of people to intercede on her behalf. I suppose the idea was that there's power in numbers. If a large enough group of people prayed for the well being of her eye, god might be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and thus grant her wish. When their prayers weren't answered, however, she rationalized that god had chosen instead to keep the cancer from spreading. She wasn't happy about the outcome though. She was clearly disappointed with god's decision. Both the power of prayer and the willingness to accept god's will failed to bring her peace of mind.   

Buddhists look at suffering in an entirely different way it seems. 

I'm no scholar of Buddhism, but what little I do know about it leads me to think that I manage my suffering in life much more from a Buddhist perspective rather than a Christian perspective. My way of dealing with suffering has evolved over the years, however. More and more, I shun the idea of a privileged destiny to happiness. In fact, I actually have huge doubts that happiness really exists. At least not in the mythological fashion that American culture promises. 

I have often made my friends squirm with visible discomfort when I tell them that I've never met a happy person. 

They become very defensive and start touting their own happiness in what seems like a desperate attempt to keep their belief in happiness alive. Without the promise of happiness, most people lose heart. Never mind that I'd just spent the last hour listening to my friends talk about their frustrated, stressed and miserable lives. The minute I suggest that life is a series of problems that require fixing, they rebel by recounting all the things that they are grateful for, all the "good times". I'm the first to admit that in between the problems, big or small, that need fixing, we sometimes find a "feel good" moment. The moments can often be few and far between, however, because our attention is needed to solve numerous problems all at the same time. If we're lucky enough to have even a brief period between problems where we can take a breath and feel good, we best not squander it. The next problem is right around the corner. That's how we know we're alive.

Many Christians are not very good at accepting life on its own terms. 

Instead, they insist that to serve god is similar to having developed a great business contact. If you're on a first-name basis with the almighty ruler of the universe and he takes notice of your every thought and need, well, it only makes sense to believe that your life will be blessed in a way that mine isn't. You now hold a ticket to the best of everything. Just call in a favor when life is too much and the big guy with all the power will take care of it. All you need to do in return is to adore him. Of course, if he decides to refuse your request, then it's in your favor to not complain or point fingers at the head honcho or else you might find that your name has been taken off the list. Just try getting into the best club in town if you're name can't be found on the list. You'll soon find your suffering to be unbearable.  

On the other hand, the Buddhist views suffering as an inevitable part of life. 

The idea that we can alter that fact isn't even offered. I'm learning to accept that the universe simply does not have my happiness in mind. All living creature's struggle to survive and their struggle goes completely unnoticed in a natural world where staying alive is challenging and permanent survival nonexistent. 

I'm also learning to accept that there will always be another problem to solve. 

I try not to anticipate what's around the corner and whenever possible live in the moment. If it's a feel good moment, I lean into it as much as I can, enjoying every aspect of it for however long it lasts. If it's a problem that refuses to be ignored, I endeavor to do my best to face it without feeling sorry for myself. 

All creatures suffer. That's life. 

However, I'm certain that my lack of faith in a supreme being has helped me to more aptly live life to it's fullest. I don't expect perfection or privilege any longer. I don't waste time trying to convince an invisible god to step in and save me. I do my best to lend a helping hand to others who need support and to ask those who love me to return the favor. In the meantime, I cherish the feel good moments for what they are, a blip on the cosmic screen from which I am grateful to be able to appreciate a full range of  human emotions and indulge in the experiences of being alive that come my way.

Our unrealistic expectations may be a direct result of the belief that we're different from all other living creatures. 

Buddhists do not discriminate in that way. Christians are guilty of spreading this notion, however. Not only do we have a bigger brain and thumbs, but we also think we have a soul. That makes us not only different but superior. Yet, it turns out that we really aren't different from the rest of the animal kingdom. The squirrel carrying a nut in his mouth as he crosses the road is constantly looking over his shoulder. He's got to eat in order to survive but the natural world doesn't lift a finger to make that happen. In fact, there's a good chance that he'll get hit by the car approaching him as he crosses the road or be swept away by a hawk that plans to eat him for lunch. 

We're no different. 

We've got to eat and the universe does nothing to assist us with our struggles to stay alive. We, too, are forced to look over our shoulders to see if we're being pursued while the car that is approaching us could just as easily run over us. We differ only in that we can think about these horrible possibilities which may have the potential to make us neurotic. So, we fabricate stories to help soothe our fears and frustrations not the least of which is the belief  that we have a soul that answers to a god who is watching over us at all times and keeping us safe. If you're hungry and can't find any nuts, just ask and ye shall receive. Ain't that a nice thought. 

Christians and Buddhists have very different world views. 

Buddhists, who don't believe in a divine being, strive to accept life as it is whereas Christians are always attempting to influence the will of a supreme being to change things just so they'll be happy. In the end, I have to wonder that if there is such a thing as peace of mind in life, who stands the best chance of experiencing this rare and wonderful phenomenon. The Buddhist or the Christian? Then again, maybe peace of mind is just another myth ...

Teresa Roberts is a myth buster. Her recently published book - Have We Been Screwed? Trading Freedom for Fairy Tales - can be purchased on Amazon.