Why Suffering Exists and What to Do About It

Once upon a time in Nepal, lived a sheltered prince whose life revolves around luxury and comfort. His father was a wealthy king and he was committed to make his son’s life very comfortable. As a result, the young prince never left his palace and became very pampered. Eventually though, the prince got tired of all that blissfulness and felt restless.

Then one day, at the age of 30, the young prince was allowed to leave the palace for a short excursion. What he saw on the outside world shocked him. First he met a sick man, then an aging man, and then a dying man. He was astounded to discover that these unfortunate people represented normal—indeed, inevitable—parts of the human condition that would one day touch him, too. 

Horrified and fascinated, the prince made more trips outside the palace walls—and encountered a holy man, who had learned to seek spiritual life in the midst of the vastness of human suffering. Determined to find the same enlightenment, the prince left his sleeping wife and son and walked away from the palace for good.

The prince tried to learn from other holy men. He almost starved himself to death by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, as they did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not bring him solace from suffering. 

Then he thought of a moment when he was a small boy: sitting by the river he’d noticed that when the grass was cut, the insects and their eggs were trampled and destroyed. Seeing this, he’d felt compassion for the tiny insects. Reflecting on his childhood compassion, the prince felt a profound sense of peace. He ate, meditated under a fig tree, and finally reached the highest state of enlightenment: “nirvana,” which simply means “awakening”. He became the Buddha, “the awakened one”.

The Buddha awoke by recognising that all of creation, from distraught ants to dying human beings, is unified by suffering.

Suffering is inevitable, the Buddha said. The question then is, why does suffering exist?

In his book The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck suggested that suffering is necessary for a person’s spiritual growth. One can’t mature without the act of meeting and solving their life’s problems. 

The trouble is when the problem gets overwhelming (something that is outside the person’s control) or when the person tries to avoid it. On occasions where the problems you are facing are too overwhelming, the best thing you can do is to ask for help (get an outside intervention). But if the problem is still within your control (you can do something about it), the best thing you can do is to employ M. Scott Peck’s four tools of discipline. They are:

  1. Delaying gratification- Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.

    The reason delaying gratification is a powerful tool is because problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit. This inclination to ignore problems is once again a simple manifestation of an unwillingness to delay gratification. Confronting problems is, as I have said, painful. To willingly confront a problem early, before we are forced to confront it by circumstances, means to put aside something pleasant or less painful for something more painful. It is choosing to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choosing to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.
  1. Accepting responsibility- We cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them. This is because we must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior. But as already mentioned avoiding pain usually only leads to more pain.
  2. Dedication to truth- The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world—the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
  3. Balancing- Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity. Mature mental health demands, then, an extraordinary capacity to flexibly strike and continually restrike a delicate balance between conflicting needs, goals, duties, responsibilities, directions, et cetera. The essence of this discipline of balancing is “giving up.” As must everyone, for as we negotiate the curves and corners of our lives, we must continually give up parts of ourselves. The only alternative to this giving up is not to travel at all on the journey of life. For example, becoming a father means giving up your leisurely activities to spend more time with your newborn baby. Being married means cutting off your choice of mate and committing yourself to your loved one.

As a final word, these tools are not complex, for they are pretty obvious and probably you’ve heard of them. However, the difficulty lies in the willingness to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools. If however, one decided to use them, great power and freedom are in store for him or her. 

This post was based loosely on M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled. If you are in Indonesia and wanted to check out this book, you can get it at a bargain price at the Zoe Life Store by clicking this link. The Zoe Life Store is a book store which provides high quality pre-loved books and various self development tools to help you be a better person.

I'm a happiness blogger who writes about philosophy for living strong, loving unconditionally and laughing more.

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