I thought about the difference between pain and suffering, then about the meaning of suffering, and the purpose of life. Because though the terms are often used interchangeably, suffering doesn't necessarily mean experiencing pain. The word commonly appears in the context of physical discomfort, but I can say that some of the times I have suffered the most have not involved any flesh and blood wound whatsoever. The word suffer is derived from the Latin word for "to bear," and in its truest sense it means to bear or be subjected to something bad or unpleasant. There is usually an emotional or psychological - dare I say a spiritual? - element to suffering, which contrasts it from pain. A broken bone is painful, but you suffer if a loved one breaks her leg.
Suffering is unavoidable in life. Sooner or later, adversity is inevitable. Failures occur. Shit happens, as they say. For many, the death of a loved one represents the first instance of suffering. And if you have ever experienced this type of loss, you can attest that suffering grief or bereavement is often more unpleasant than physical pain. At least you know that the pain of a stubbed toe will subside, but the emptiness that ensues after a beloved says goodbye seems to go on forever, and it seems to gnaw at your very soul!!!
So what is the purpose of suffering? Why must we experience this emotion? The answer is not so simple. Unlike pain, whose purpose is clear and essential to our survival. Pain causes you to attend to a wound, and, as in the case of a broken bone, not move your injured limb so the body has an opportunity to repair itself, with or without the help of a surgeon's scalpel. Many if not all animals experience or appear to experience pain, mammals especially. Whether fish find being sliced open and gutted painful, whether suffocating outside the ocean is excruciating is a subject for debate. Do plants feel pain? If they do, it is unlike the pain humans know. Plants lack nerves, and do not bleed. Without mouths to scream their agony would fall on deaf ears anyway.
But suffering is uniquely human. I noticed this with my mother's death. Her poodle, Max, remained by her side during her final days. Guarding her day and night, he was intensely protective of her, growling and snarling at anyone who came too close. Regardless of their intentions. He even bit my grandmother on the hand and caused her to bleed when her fingers merely caressed the folds of my mother's bedding. Mad Max made it clear that if you wanted to interact with my mom, you had to go through him. Which meant keep your distance. But the moment my mother left her body, Max left her side, never to return. Indeed not fifteen minutes after she expired, he fetched his tennis ball and all he wanted to do was play the rest of the day. His job was done. In the ensuing days many tears were shed for my mother, by her sons and her sisters and my grandma with her wounded hand and whoever else came to visit, and many dropped by. But Max never even got back up on my mom's bed. And in the two months since her passing he seems not to miss her at all, or if he does not to suffer, or not to show it. So much for Max.
As for humans, I think I know why we suffer. It has something to do with another factor that like suffering is uniquely human. I mean our capacity for reflection, for introspection. For it is only when we suffer that we wonder about the meaning of life, that we question the purpose of existence. Before suffering visits our world, we are so caught up in the sheer enjoyment of living, experiencing, tasting of life's pleasures. We are like kids, blissfully immersed in our social circles and little dramas that we have not time to give a thought to the big picture. Who has the desire to go inward when there are so many outward things vying for our time and titillating our mind?
But suffering makes us wary. The phrase once bitten, twice shy applies. After we suffer loss, we start to question things. We become hesitant to dive into life's manifold adventures, wondering when next a catastrophe will cause us displeasure. Things begin to feel trivial. We lose our taste for what formerly delighted us. It is not uncommon for someone suffering depression (and mental illness is often caused by personal tragedy) to lose interest in pastimes. Indeed this is the hallmark of the mood disorder. It is called anhedonia, which means the inability to feel pleasure.
It is interesting to note that most major religions, particularly the more philosophical ones (read: Eastern), occupy themselves almost exclusively with this question. What is the purpose of life? And if it is only when we suffer that we temporarily leave off the enjoyment of life's entertainments and turn inward to seek out life's true meaning, we find that suffering's purpose is a grand one.
So, what is the purpose of life? If you trust the testimonies of those who have undergone near death experiences (NDEs) - incidents in which individuals are declared clinically dead and later resuscitated, and report that in the interval between life and death they left their physical body and visited what appeared to be the realm of the afterlife, populated by "beings of light" who served as guides - if, I say, these testimonies are to be believed, then life's purpose is two-fold.
Over and over those who have brushes with death and leave their bodies to contact the ethereal realm repeat the message that we must learn to replace anger with love, learn to love more, learn to forgive and learn to love everyone unconditionally. Not only that, but each of us must learn that we are indeed loved very, very much. Isn't that a much harder lesson for some of us? I know it is for me. I sometimes feel that if I vanished from the face of the Earth right now I would hardly be missed! What prevents me from doing the deed as they say is beyond me. It probably has to do with my aversion to pain. I dislike physical discomfort so much that I am willing to bear spiritual suffering. Existential angst is so much cleaner than a slit wrist. I know, poor me.
Anyway, the only moral criterion used by guardian beings of light in helping us evaluate our life seems to be our ability to love and be loved. All else falls by the wayside. This means therefore that much of what we hold so dear - earning money, gaining fame, watching porn and eating pizza - is really very meaningless in the grand scheme. It also means that what we judge others for - being slovenly, for instance, or lazy, or fat or drinking too much - is equally meaningless. The message is clear. Do anything. Be a stripper, an alcoholic, a slovenly slacker with a spare tire if you wish. Just so long as you love. There is no right or wrong in the life eternal. There is only love or its absence. The barometer of grace, if there is one, is compassion. If your intentions are pure, then the results of your actions, or the size of your waistline, are incidental. We are in this world to learn how better to love.
Speaking of learning, knowledge appears to be the second purpose of life. Especially, as Michael Talbot writes, "knowledge related to self-growth or that enhances one's ability to help other people." Learning is continuous and does not end with death. However much Prada and Gucci and other manufacturers of finery would wish you to believe otherwise, it is not material possessions but knowledge that you can take with you after you leave your body. The mystery is that in light of the infinite library of information that we purportedly have access to once we depart terra firma for the spirit realm, which led the ancient Greeks to say that we never learn anything on Earth but rather merely remember it - in light of the infinite library of information that we come from and go back to, why should the quest for knowledge be so important in this world? Not even NDErs know for sure. But it is suspected that it has something to do with the ability each of us has to reach out and help our fellow beings. Until more news from the other side arrives (mom can you hear me?), I leave you with the final words of one NDEr, Mrs. Betty Eadie, who in her 1992 best-seller, Embraced by the Light, concludes: "Above all else, love one another."
It seems that like Hinduism and Buddhism and mystical interpretations of Islam and Judaism, with their constant questioning of life's true purpose, Christianity is not far off the mark when providing the answer. For it was Christ who urged his followers to love God above all else and love one's neighbor as oneself.
Or at least continue to try. Because if at first you don't succeed, you can get 'em in another life.