This blog as a whole looks at ways in which the long story of life on earth can meet some of the needs currently served by our beliefs about the cosmos. One of those needs is the management of suffering. Secular and religious beliefs differ radically in the attention they give to suffering. I believe that a view of all life, beyond humans alone, might offer a solace that is both non-theistic and enlightening.
Modern secular creeds don’t say much about suffering. The American Humanist Web site, in its introduction to religious humanism, for example, mentions “methods of dealing with life’s harsher realities” in its discussion of ethics, empathy, and social betterment. Naturalism, as presented at naturalism.org, focuses on the physical world and the rejection of supernaturalism, without discussing suffering. However, the Greek philosopher Epicurus recommended the reduction of suffering in one’s life by cultivating an attitude of robust tranquility, by leading a stable life with good friends, and by not relying on the gods. His advice still gets respect.
But if you are looking for popular belief systems that have a lot to say about suffering, you turn to religion. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths place suffering at the center: life is suffering, the source of the suffering is attachment, and detachment can be achieved. For Hindus, suffering is a result of past actions but it also provides an opportunity for spiritual progress in this life. The Christian Bible is replete with discussions of suffering, epitomized in the story of Job, whose sufferings and supplications leave Job with only the lesson that God is too great to be understood and is not obligated to explain suffering to Job or anyone else. How we behave and what we believe, in other words, are not guarantees we won’t suffer, for suffering may be completely undeserved.
Many secularists dismiss the story of Job as a lame attempt to explain away why it is that bad things happen to good people if an all-powerful deity is actually in charge. But they overlook a contradiction: the religion they scorn has earned the evolutionary credentials that they generally respect. Religion has, over time, strengthened social bonds, helped suffering believers to feel better, and for those reasons has provided a survival benefit. Humans cannot be simply “educated out of” religion, because in one form or another, they–we–need it, at least at those times when pain seems unbearable, inexplicable, and prolonged.
Is there a view of suffering that is wider than “methods for dealing with harsh realities” and yet remains within the bounds of secular thinking and scientific knowledge? The history of life offers a path to explore. My own thinking turns to the relation of our suffering to the difficulties faced by animals and plants. The term “suffering” refers to beings with consciousness. Suffering is an awareness. In that sense, plants, animals and other non-sentient beings don’t suffer (as far as we know). But suffering is a signal of disease or injury or other threatening conditions, and those harsh conditions themselves impact plants and animals as well as humans. There is no mystical or supernatural component here—simply the earthly realities that plants die from diseases, animals get injured, drought causes living things to wilt. Plants and animals may not suffer as we do, but do they endure the same onslaughts to their well-being. The distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings is an iron-clad one in discussions of consciousness and animal rights and in the Christian tradition. But it cuts us off sometimes, as in the contemplation of suffering, from a potentially richer vision of what we are.
Only the woman is suffering consciously, but both she and the tree are weakened and at-risk.
Would this view console someone suffering from cancer or violence or poverty? Probably not. To find consolation, we need the love of and connection to our own kind. Because the conditions that cause suffering are threats to our life, we turn instinctively to those who might reduce or undo that threat—family, friends, doctors.
But when we are not in the midst of suffering, the contemplation that its causes are shared by all of life can strengthen us.