If we can be certain of anything, then it is of death (of course) and……not taxes (for one might live where there are no taxes)…..but suffering: death and suffering confront us as part of what it is to be human. Just as we must eat and drink to live, so too we must suffer and eventually die. Much may come between birth and death—real love and fulfillment would be “nice”—but two of the most important questions we should ask ourselves in our role as humans concern what our attitude toward death and suffering should be. Here I will talk only about suffering. There are, I suggest, three main possibilities for our attitude toward suffering. I will refer to them as Buddhist, Christian, and Affirmative.
What I am calling the “Buddhist attitude” is not meant to be true to all the subtleties of the various forms of Buddhism. Nevertheless it is a kind of distillation of a key aspect of the Buddhist world view. The key idea is that happiness (I will speak of happiness instead of Nirvana) results from escaping suffering; and suffering is caused by incorrect views and actions in regard to our habitual desires, especially the desire to control how things are. We don’t want to wait in line; we wish the line would move faster; and what happens? We suffer. We don’t have enough cash, but we don’t want to wait to buy an Ipod; so either we suffer or we buy one on credit, putting off the suffering. If we remove the desire and accept how things are, then we remove the suffering. It is only through such relinquishing of desire that we can avoid suffering; and it is only through avoiding suffering that we can truly be happy. There is, of course, much more to Buddhism than this. But central to the Buddhist view for our purposes is the idea that suffering is an impediment to happiness.
Just as with the Buddhist attitude, what I am calling the “Christian attitude” is not meant to be true to all of the subtleties of the various forms of Christianity. Nevertheless it is a kind of distillation of a key aspect of the Christian world view. The key idea is that happiness results from transcending the physical world and achieving some kind of union with the divine. Hell is separation from God; heaven is union with God. As long as we are on this earth we are separate from God, despite how close we may feel at certain moments of prayer or ecstasy. Further, and importantly, we are fallen creatures who are destined to sin no matter how hard we try. And it is through our sinning that we bring suffering upon ourselves and those we love. So we are to blame for our suffering; the best we can do to be happy is to focus on God and following God’s commandments, all the while hoping to transcend this world to one much better.
What I am calling the “Affirmative attitude” owes much to ideas found in the writings of Nietzsche. The fundamental insight is that happiness of the kind that we should be concerned with is not to be equated with a lack of suffering or some merely positive, fleeting feeling. Rather, happiness, a life worth living, demands a certain kind of action and creativity that is only possible through suffering. Suffering, or at least certain types, is valuable as a means. We must either actually suffer or risk great suffering if we are to create a life that is valuable.
For the moment I am going to remain vague on the kinds of suffering I am talking about. Instead I want to note that there is the problem of the suffering that does not seem to contribute to such lofty goals. For example, the quotidian suffering from headaches, hangnails, and hangovers. But more importantly, the suffering of illness that is either debilitating or (inclusive “or”) terminal. The “quotidian” suffering may be justified along the lines that if we cannot bear such suffering, then how can we hope to bear the more profound kinds of suffering needed to live well? So that suffering is a kind of “practice.” But the suffering from debilitating/terminal illness cannot necessarily be handled in the same way. We may in the end simply have to say that not all suffering is of value.
And that leads to the point that, of course, the three attitudes above need not be, nor are they in real life, separate. Anyone growing up in some kind of Judeo-Christian (Muslim?) society will have imbibed aspects of all three. We naturally seek to avoid suffering (Buddhist attitude), we learn to blame ourselves for certain kinds of suffering and hope for a better life, if not in “heaven,” then in the future (Christian attitude), and we pay lip service, at least, to the idea that greatness doesn’t come easy (Affirmative attitude). The question is which of them should prevail over the others—not necessarily to the full exclusion of the others. We can, after all, adopt the affirmative attitude and still seek to avoid getting cancer or wish that we didn’t have some debilitating neuro-muscular disorder or debilitating migraines.
The point to all of this is that “western” cultures/societies uncritically, and without any sort of awareness of what they are doing, adopt a combination of the Buddhist and Christian attitudes. In general the Affirmative attitude is relegated to those few necessary evils we must do to get that promotion, buy the house, go on the nice vacation, etc.; and then the Affirmative attitude isn’t affirmative at all, but full of resentment: “Why can’t this be easier?” Without giving any reason here, now, I will simply assert that those of us who can (and I am not saying I could) should adopt more fully and with full awareness the Affirmative attitude.