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The “Goodness” of Suffering

I am prompted to make my thoughts clear on this topic by a recent discussion, in which several people asserted that suffering could be, of itself, “good”.

I could not disagree with this point any more if I denied the very experience of suffering. The justification generally given is that suffering often acts as the impetus for efforts of self-development. This is true, certainly; any self-examination in an adult will prove it out in one’s own personal history. However, let us not make a mistake in logic! To say that we can bring something good out of suffering is not the same as saying that suffering itself is inherently good.

Consider an analogy: a camper is incautious and does not put out his fire before moving on. The fire spreads and rages, destroying acres and acres of forest, spreading across fields of dry grass and into areas populated by humans. Several people, not to mention the numerous animals and incredible numbers of trees, lose their lives, and thousands or millions of dollars in property damage on top of it all. But the burnt remnants of trees and plants fertilize the soil, allowing for the regrowth of the forest even more lush than before. And the fields that were burned now make for excellent farmland. So some benefit did come from it, in the long run! But was the fire, or the carelessness which caused it, or the drought conditions which allowed it to spread, or all of the death and destruction, good of itself? It would be a callous and unreflective soul who would answer in the affirmative.

It has been said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. This is true, insofar as pain is merely a physiological and/or emotional reaction to some stimulus, while suffering is the result of consciousness of that pain. In other words, pain is just something that “happens to” you, while suffering is something that you “do with” pain. A fish never asks, “Why me?!” And that, conscious awareness, is the key to the whole question.

The degree to which any given individual possesses the capacity for self-reflection is also the degree to which that individual may suffer. The more questions the individual can ask, the more he may suffer. But that does not reflect an inherent property of suffering as much as an inherent property of awareness. It is as the Buddha said: it is Mind that makes a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven. Suffering is, of itself, morally neutral. Causing suffering, however, is morally reprehensible. If suffering were inherently good, causing it would also be good, which would lead us into a moral and ethical black hole.

Now, it is also awareness, mind, Νους, which is capable of bringing good out of evil. In our present case, it is conscious reflection which may extract a lesson from the suffering. If I am not paying attention in the kitchen and I put my hand onto a hot stove, I will feel pain, and I will probably suffer by looking at my burn, thinking about how much it hurts, and asking how I could have been so stupid, but only if I take just a moment to consider just how, really, I could have been so stupid, can I learn how not to repeat it. Does that make the burn, or the fact of my consciousness of the pain, beneficial? No, but I might be smart enough to extract some small nugget of knowledge out of those things and avoid making the same mistake twice.

On a higher plane of thought, suffering as both experience and concept, in the broad scope of its reality, provides even more food for thought. I can begin to ask the questions, “Why does suffering exist?”, “Why do innocents suffer?”, and so forth. But the good which comes from this process is not the doing of suffering, but of my reflective and active mind. That is the good in the equation of suffering. Just as a hammer can be both a weapon and a tool, we each have some capacity to use our minds to create, preserve, and carry on cycles of suffering, or we can use them to alleviate and prevent suffering. The more we grow, the more we learn to direct our minds according to our higher will, the more good we can extract and unfold from the suffering which makes up so much of this world. We may learn to outsmart the devil and take from him his power, but that doesn’t make the devil our friend!

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