American late-night television host and comedian Stephen Colbert is best known for poking fun at politicians but when a clip from a recent conversation with CNN host Anderson Cooper went viral, he wasn’t taking a jab at Donald Trump. Colbert was simply stating a truth about life: “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”
He wasn’t saying anything new, but rather reviving an old, and all but forgotten truth – that suffering is inherent to human life.
And while it’s something most people would rather not consider or discuss, the fact that that segment of their conversation generated the most shares online suggests that the subject struck a chord.
It’s not surprising that the same unifying concept of the connection between suffering and existence is found in the teachings of Buddhism, Christianity, and Stoicism. All teach that accepting this inescapable truth is the best way to deal with it.
This is why we need to have a conversation about the suffering inherent to human life.
Dukkha, life is suffering
This isn’t the result of a tumultuous political system, a rapidly changing economy, or climate change – but the reality of being a biological organism, bolstered by our consciousness.
As biological organisms we face a natural world that can take us out if we let our guard down.
As sentient beings we’re aware of our own existence and mortality, and that of everyone we love. Our capacity for conscious thought makes us aware of our finitude, and the fact that we’re never truly living up to our own potential.
We’re governed by the law of entropy, which means that we must continuously seek out energy sources to keep us alive. This is why we evolved in us the unpleasant sense that there’s always more to be done, and why contentment is such a rare and short-lived emotion.
In other words, if we stop working, things don’t stay the same; they get worse.
We rarely discuss these facts, or the mental states they elicit. Instead, we put on a brave face and pretend that all is well and good – sleepwalking through an existential crisis.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that our moments of happiness are fleeting. Suffering is always lurking around the corner.
You may ask why discussing a topic as dark as this would be of benefit – that surely we’d be better off with our illusions.
But to confront the reality that suffering is baked into the very fabric of existence, we can prepare ourselves, and ultimately, become resilient enough to handle it with courage.
Even without knowing that suffering is inherent to all living beings, we still experience suffering in our own lives. Which can lead one to believe that the universe is bent against us.
When we deepen our understanding of suffering, we come to realize that our family, friends, and neighbors are struggling through life too. This understanding should prompt a desire to be more compassionate and tolerant of those around us. The impulse to act harshly toward someone you dislike or disagree with will be met with the recognition that they too are suffering, even if it doesn’t look that way.
In addition to the comfort gained from knowing you’re not struggling alone and the courage that’ll come from confronting suffering – is the benefit of accurate expectations.
The harsh realities of life
Imagine this, you go on an all-day-hiking trip on an empty stomach under the assurance that you’ll get a hotdog after the hike. That’ll likely be the best hot dog you’ve ever had.
Now imagine the same scenario but instead you’ve been promised a meal at your favorite restaurant. However, at the end of the hike someone informs you that there’s been a misunderstanding. Instead of a meal at you’re favourites restaurant you’ll receive a hotdog. Chances are you’d find that hotdog bitterly disappointing.
This is to say that our expectations can influence our experience of a situation.
Growing up we’re told that if we work hard and are honest, we’ll be rewarded with a good life. This may be true, but an important detail is often omitted – that suffering will come along for the ride.
To experience suffering when it’s what you expected from life, is much more tolerable than if you expected joy, comfort, and fairness.
How to grow from suffering
With the acceptance of suffering as part of life, comes the imperative to develop the tools necessary for flourishing in such a world. This will require developing strong personal connections and a life philosophy that serves as a sail to get you through the rough waters.
As your competence and capacity grows, so too will your responsibility to alleviate the suffering you’re confronted with. Be it through acts of kindness and generosity or advocacy and allyship.
We have a choice to make. To continue pretending that we’re living the life promised to us as children, one of happiness and comfort, or to break the illusion by taking on the burden of suffering and to do so with dignity and courage. We can take comfort in knowing our brothers and sisters are struggling along with us.
The first step begins with a conversation.