Conquering suffering

by Jim Paredes on Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 8:42pm

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated January 30, 2011 1

I am sure I have tackled this topic before. But one thing about great topics is that you can never define or completely map out their entire universe. Sometimes, you feel that you may have entered it through a new path and taken a different exit upon exploring it again.

It is quite astonishing and alarming that floods are occurring in the Philippines, Brazil, Australia and now in Saudi Arabia. These locations in separate parts of the world are experiencing similar weather patterns bringing varying degrees of devastation. And more of these types of weather aberrations are expected to occur.

I just came back from Australia to enjoy part of its summer season but I only experienced five regular hot summer days. This time of the year, the weather is normally quite hot, with temperatures varying from warm and balmy to something verging on a heat wave. But what I got was not the full-on summer that I expected. Apart from the five sunny days, the rest of my visit consisted of cloudy, muggy days that were slightly cold, and many times were even cold enough to require a jacket.

Weather like this can cause a lot of inconvenience, even extreme suffering, but I couldn’t complain considering that Queensland went through devastating floods that crippled around 20 percent of the economic output of the country. It was their Ondoy magnified about a hundredfold, if we consider the geographical area involved.

We may be living in modern times with its modern conveniences to ease suffering, but we can only do so much.

Mayhem, destruction and suffering have always been a big part of human history. There has hardly been a period when mankind has not suffered a war, whether a small or a huge conflict, involving large chunks of humanity. We have had plagues, epidemics, horrible acts of nature that have ravaged and killed millions of people everywhere.

A big part of life is about suffering. This is a given but, even if we know it to be true, it is still hard to accept. I can imagine that this aspect of our existence is a major driving force that has made religions prosper. Some unbelievers have pointed out that suffering is probably the reason religions have had to come into being. We needed to make sense of suffering. We wanted explanations. “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him,” Voltaire wrote.

One might also surmise that science was also probably born of suffering. Man had to understand with his mind why things were happening in a certain way. And where some turned to a concept of God, others turned to reason and logic.

But I am more interested in discussing what suffering is and how people cope with it, rather than how religions or science probably came to be.

In Dr. M. Scott Peck’s phenomenal book, The Road Less Traveled, he starts off by stating categorically that life is hard, and that as soon as we accept that, it becomes easier. We stop resisting and we drop expectations. We simply must accept that it is a large part of human existence. In short, he says, it is taking the path of no resistance to suffering that will lead to its easing.

But one thing I notice is that even if we can accept M. Scott Peck’s words, intellectually or conceptually, the reality of suffering is far more daunting and painful when we are going through it. There is a big difference between an idea and a felt experience. When the word is made flesh, it discovers its nerves, feelings and emotions.

“The map is not the territory,” American-Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski famously wrote. When we walk the road, we leave behind the drawn representation of reality and feel the sharp bumps on our feet, the heat of the sun, and we may even get lost.

I remember how we all suffered during Ondoy, although some suffered way more than others, as they experienced the loss of everything, including the lives of loved ones. How does one begin to recover from such a cataclysmic event? Now, when I see footage of the destruction in Australia, I ask myself how the people in Queensland will take their lives back.

I read somewhere that a day after Germany surrendered to the allies at the end of the Second World War, the employees of the Daimler-Benz company showed up at their ruined factories to take the first step toward normalizing their jarred lives. They simply picked up the pieces of what they once were and began to build anew.

And that is what we saw people do when Ondoy’s waters subsided. People began to clean the mud from their homes and pick up what they could still use and rebuild their lives anew. People restored one square meter of space at a time in the hope of re-conquering or recovering as much of the territory they lost to the devastation.

What saves us is the instinct to survive and thrive over diversity. While we may feel fear, uncertainty, pain, suffering and all that, the important thing is to continue doing what we must do in spite of how we feel.

When you survey the areas ravaged by the floods a year and a half ago, it is heartening to see that normalcy has returned in large measure. That’s because people did what needed to be done. The victims must have eased their suffering by first accepting their unfortunate situation and not wallowing in it, and then worked at disentangling the twisted ruins they found themselves in.

The tendency to fold up in the face of huge challenges is natural. Fear is natural. But people conquer suffering when they stare back at it until they are bigger than their fear.

Scott Peck observed that the way Christians and Buddhists look at Jesus and Buddha can be a bit skewed. He says that contrary to our impressions, there were probably more times when Jesus had a good time than the suffering he went through. He also surmised that Buddha may have suffered more in his life than the times when he enjoyed peace and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. This is not an unreasonable proposition.

While much of life can be suffering, it is also other things as well. But for us to enjoy the other things, it is best to develop the skills that can contain the suffering aspect of our lives. Otherwise, much of what’s left that does not have to be painful becomes suffering, too.

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