why do we suffer?


What Is The Purpose Of Suffering?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why do we suffer? Are we being punished by some cosmic entity who watches our actions and exacts revenge for our every transgression? Or is it all in our head—is suffering a condition that we inflict on ourselves by choice?

Today, I’m going to philosophize on suffering, with the ultimate goal of convincing you that suffering is not a punishment, but a gift.

I’ll start with a story.

Diamonds Are Forever—And So Is Back Pain

In late 2017, I was working at a wine cellar in South Tampa. One day, while carrying a case of wine down a ladder, I felt a sharp pain at the base of my neck, just above my shoulder blades.

I brushed it off and kept working, but the pain stuck with me through the evening. Eventually, I went home, chugged a warm beer, then took a shower and tried to sleep off the pain.

The next morning, when I woke and tried to sit up in bed, pain wracked my body like lightning.

From the base of my neck to the bottom of my rib cage, and even around the front of my torso, my muscles were swollen and spasming uncontrollably. I couldn’t stand or walk. I could barely breathe.

I crawled slowly into the living room, where my roommate was playing PS4, then I lay on the floor and begged him to put a 20-pound bag of ice on my back.

After 30 minutes, I tried to get off the floor, but the pain surged worse than before. I forced myself into a sitting position, then tried to stand.

I couldn’t.

I laid back on the floor and cried. I had never felt so much physical pain before.

My roommate helped me get onto the couch, and I spent the rest of that day—and most of the following day—lying on my couch, taking ibuprofen, and trying not to scream.

After two days, I knew I needed to see a doctor. I didn’t have a regular care provider, so I asked my friend to drive me to a clinic.

My scans and diagnosis took an hour and cost $200. The good news was that I didn’t have any spinal fractures. The bad news was that years of manual labor had done permanent damage to my upper spine.

My vertebrae had rubbed against each other so frequently and forcefully that they’d formed sharp edges. Those sharp bits had lacerated the muscles around my spine, causing them to swell, which caused more laceration and further swelling in a feedback loop of pain.

Oh yeah, and apparently the 20-pound ice bag had made it worse.

The doctor said all I could do was rest, apply heat, and take anti-inflammatories until the swelling went down, and then get used to dealing with pain in my back, shoulders, and chest for the rest of my life.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

It’s been six years since my injury, and even now, if I sit down, slouch, or bend my neck for any longer than a few minutes at a time, pain starts between my shoulders, then spreads to the middle of my back, up to my neck, and around to my chest.

I’ve compensated by building a standing desk and transitioning to floor sleeping to keep my spine as straight as possible throughout the day and night. I also have to stretch regularly to prevent my muscles from getting too stiff.

These practices help me keep my pain manageable—and get some sleep—but they never make it go away completely.

I used to resent the pain, but time has helped me take a different perspective.

In seeking methods to manage my pain, I discovered mindfulness, which opened the door to a total transformation in how I cope with not just pain, but all of my emotions.

Put simply, my injury helped me become more aware of myself, and that self-awareness lead me to a lifestyle I never would have pursued if I hadn’t gotten injured.

For this reason, I’m grateful for my injury, because it helped me grow.

Quote Of The Week

“Constant misfortune brings this one blessing: to whom it always assails, it eventually fortifies.” — Seneca

Become Antifragile, Or Misfortune Will Break You To Pieces

In 2012, Nassim Nicolas Taleb introduced the world to a concept called antifragility. Antifragility is a quality of certain systems that allows them to not only survive but thrive under stress.

According to Taleb: "Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better."

Some examples of antifragile systems:

  • Muscles and bones get stronger when you damage them with impact exercises and heavy weight training
  • When Hercules cut off the head of the mythical hydra, it grew two heads where before there had only been one, thus becoming twice as dangerous
  • Small armies that utilize guerilla tactics against large forces benefit from the imbalance of power—they can maneuver swiftly, hide easily, and leverage the “strengths” of the large army against it by starving out the larger force, sabotaging munitions stockpiles to cause deadly explosions, and burning down large encampments

There’s one antifragile system in particular that I want to focus on in this piece though: the human mind.

We discussed a few weeks ago how mindfulness practices reshape your brain by shrinking your amygdala (fight-or-flight center) and growing your prefrontal cortex (judgment center).

Here’s the thing: this transformative process requires adversity to function.

No pain, no gain.

In other words, without suffering, it would be impossible for you to grow as a person. It is not time, but adversity that allows a person to progress from ape to sage—from foolish child to wise elder.

Enter The Forge

I like to think of life as a forge. In a forge, a blacksmith refines iron ore—which is essentially just dirt with some flecks of iron in it—into a perfect steel blade.

The blacksmith exposes the ore to extreme heat to burn away its impurities, brutally beats the mass of molten metal into a new shape, quenches it, and then repeats the process over and over until the steel becomes flawless.

If the blade were sentient during this process, it might resent the blacksmith, the forge, and even its own existence. After all, what did the blade ever do to deserve its torture?

This is where common explanations for suffering are wrong. Suffering isn’t a punishment from God or a karmic balancing of the scales—it is the process of ultimate refinement.

If you are suffering, it’s not because you’ve transgressed and earned a brutal punishment.

No.

You have been selected for greatness.

And the next step of your purification is to become one with the mind of the blacksmith and to understand that what you have previously perceived as suffering is in fact not suffering at all, but love.

After all, think about how much joy you’ll be able to feel when you finally know you have been perfected by the hand of God—whatever God is.

The final step of your transformation, however, is to understand that you are not only the blade but also the blacksmith.

It’s your duty not only to submit to the forge but to place yourself into it.

You must don the gloves. You must work the bellows. You must swing the hammer.

At the same time, you must meet the flames. You must take a new shape. You must become your destiny.

So, what is the purpose of suffering?

Through suffering, we create ourselves.

Question Of The Week

How have you grown from painful experiences?


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Hey, I'm Chris

I'm a writer, podcaster, musician, and artist creating content to help you live on purpose and die without regrets.

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