Life is Suffering

The first of the four noble truths, as articulated by The Buddha, depending on how you translate it, is simply this:

Life is suffering.

In recent months it seems that in an above-average number of my circle of friends and acquaintances there has been an above-average amount of what can only be termed suffering.

From folks directly or indirectly affected by illness (cancer, most frequently), to marital problems, to family issues, to massive depression, to … well, just life issues in general in more than one case, people I care about are suffering. Naturally that causes – you guessed it – my own suffering as I slowly come to the realization that there’s exactly nothing I can do to help. Not one damn thing.

Buddha-Statue and Crystal ballWell, yeah, aside from acknowledging it, of course, being mindful of it, and to “be there” for them – whatever that means.

And of course, to try not to accidentally make things worse.

What I can’t do, though, is what I desperately would love to do: I want to fix things. (I’m an engineer, it’s what I do.) But I can’t. My magical anti-suffering wand hasn’t arrived.

What it does mean, though, is that I must also look out for myself. There’s only so much you can take on someone else’s suffering before it becomes your own, and in a bad way. Sadness, negativity, just general “grumpiness” are easy traps to fall into when surrounded by the suffering of people you truly care about.

And yet, to not take on some – in sympathy, out of concern, out of love – well, that doesn’t seem right either. It’s a fine line, I guess.

So, for now, I’ll simply acknowledge these things:

  • Life is suffering. Be kind; the suffering you might see in the people around you is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Thoreau  was right: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation …“.
  • Not all suffering is “bad”, per se, it simply is. That I might suffer for the plight of my friends isn’t a bad thing, really. It arises out of my concern for them; my love for them. And yet, suffering it is.
  • Be mindful of your own suffering. Much of our suffering is self-imposed – I see this even among my friends. The second noble truth? Suffering arises from attachment or desire. (With apologies to my Buddhist friends who would certainly say that it’s much more nuanced than that.) We often do it to ourselves.
  • Be grateful. Independent of all this I know I have much to be thankful for: my life, my marriage, my health, my friends, … the list goes on. I am truly blessed. It all serves as a reminder, I guess, that gratitude is really the closest thing to that magical anti-suffering wand, at least for myself. I carry it with me wherever I go.

Peace. May your own suffering be light.