Sunday, February 27, 2022

The meaning of suffering

When I was Catholic, my life was pretty hard. Some of my difficulties were specifically caused by being Catholic. I didn't see suffering as a reason not to do anything--in fact, I sometimes sought out things that would make me suffer more, because I thought it was good for me. But my religion also gave me ways to handle any suffering I experienced. It all felt meaningful. And it was all, of course, going to be canceled out by future reward.

Now, my life is still difficult. There are things that are easier now that I decided to see suffering as a bad thing, a thing I could avoid by making different choices. Unfortunately, not all suffering can be avoided, especially not without causing harm to other people. So there's still suffering.

The difference is that now there is no answer to any of it. No meaning. If suffering is actually bad, then there's no bright side and no reward for putting up with it. It simply is.

If suffering, on its own, is purely bad, you'll avoid it more, which is good. I see some major problems with people failing to see suffering as bad, but rather priding themselves on being able to put up with it / see meaning in it / offer it up. Notable is Mother Teresa not giving painkillers to the dying, even though she had them available, because she felt suffering was the kiss of Jesus. From my perspective (as a person who does not believe suffering is the kiss of Jesus, or anything good at all) this is terrible. But I see similar attitudes in Catholics I know, who are pretty willing to tell you how much their life sucks, but pretty unwilling to make any real changes. Because, after all, it's only suffering, it's not sin or any kind of lasting harm.

I certainly had that attitude as a Catholic. I didn't want to suffer, I didn't worship suffering, but I just didn't see any point in avoiding it. My goals were different. So I always tried toughing out headaches instead of taking anything for them, only taking something when it was already bad and therefore not very responsive to medication. And I took jobs and situations that I knew would be hard on me, because I thought being pushed harder would be good for me.

Now, I take steps to avoid suffering. I put my kids in school, in large part, because having them all at home all the time was making me miserable. There are good things about it for them also, but it was including my own happiness as a point to consider that really pushed me over. I take ibuprofen when my head first starts to hurt. If I want some ice cream, I eat some dang ice cream. I'm not chasing suffering.

But suffering still happens. I still have chronic headaches. It took me years and years to go to a doctor about it, and then I did that and they still didn't know what the matter was. My kids are still overwhelming, and I have already done all the things that might make that job easier on me without neglecting them. I am still living through a global pandemic that makes me isolated and lonely.

And this time, there is no reason for any of it. It just sucks.

It kind of takes the pressure off, in some ways. I don't have to offer it up. I don't have to worry that complaining once in a while robs me of merit. I can cope in whatever way helps and isn't harmful.

But at the same time, a lot of coping strategies have been lost. "Hold my breath and get through it"? I have only one precious and unrepeatable life, and it's being wasted on being unhappy. "Things will get better"? Yeah, maybe, but maybe they won't. I don't believe in heaven, and this life is notoriously unfair. "Offer it up"? There is no logical reason why me suffering will help anyone else ever, and no evidence it ever has.

I don't regret having moved away from a belief system that valorized suffering. When I see suffering as a problem to solve, I make better choices, both for myself and when it comes to helping others. But at the same time, I wish there were some option that allowed me to see a meaning in meaningless suffering without denying that it is, in fact, bad. Something that made me feel I can have a week where I'm overwhelmed and struggling and nothing good happens, and yet somehow it's okay, something has been gained.

Any tips?

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