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Why do we Suffer? Three Possibilities

08/27/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As a Rabbi, I've found that the most troubling spiritual question for most people is: "Why is life so difficult?" They want to understand why bad things happen -- especially to good people -- why things can't always be easy and comfortable and why we suffer. This question of suffering -- which theologians refer to as "theodicy" -- has, since the emergence of human consciousness, prompted many different theories and possible answers. Below are three compelling ideas. Some may resonate for you and others may seem forced or flat, but all present a way to see life's difficulties as mechanisms for growth.

The first idea may be stated as:
Overcoming Difficulties Elevates Us
The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, stated:

The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.

In other words, by responding to challenges we develop skills and the effort of hard work and well-earned accomplishments develops self-esteem. I read a wonderful allegory about this idea:

There was a man who loved to golf, but did not have the time to practice, so he was constantly frustrated by his mediocre game. Finally, he calls out to the heavens, "Please, God. If only I could hit a hole-in-one every time, I would be happy." He hears a voice respond, "You're desire is granted."

The man hits the ball, and it sails right in to the hole. He swings again, and the second ball lands on top of the first. Elated, he calls to his friends, and they are amazed at his new powers. He goes on tour, and becomes famous and rich. But the novelty quickly wears off, and people soon become bored watching the same results every time: every swing, a hole-in-one. The man too is now bored, and he begins to hate the game that he once loved. He tries to deliberately miss so that the game will be more interesting, but no matter where he swings, the ball finds the hole. Finally, he returns to the golf course where he received his wish, and throws his clubs into the lake."God," he cries, "why did you grant me this foolish wish?"

The voice replies, "Who said I was God?"

The second approach to understanding life's difficulty may be stated as:
Difficulties Present the Necessity for Choices
The 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz wrote that the world in which we live is the "best possible world." This statement is often misunderstood to mean that the world is as good as it could be. What Leibnitz teaches, though, is that this system, which presents adversity and allows for the possibility of suffering, is necessary so that we can choose the good. We may wish to live in a Garden of Eden where there is no struggle and no need to grow, but such a world can never be as good as the potential that exists in our world. The wonderful movie Wall-E presents the horror of a pleasure-cruise, no-struggle world.

Difficulties are necessary so that we can make choices. Through choosing between compassion or anger, action or resignation, or generosity or selfishness, we literally create ourselves. Without the possibility of adversity, these choices would not be needed and we would remain blank slates. It is through difficult choices, and the effort required to implement these choices, that we become agents for personal and societal growth, or apathy and decay.

The third approach to understanding life's difficulty may be stated as:
Difficulties Develop Confidence and Faith.
How often have we faced a situation that seemed like a disaster -- that made us cry out, "Why is this happening to me?" -- only to find later that this "disaster" was actually exactly what we needed at that moment to protect us, guide us and perhaps push us towards a higher goal that we would not have moved towards otherwise.

At the end of the movie "Charlie Wilson's War", the CIA agent who has been working with Congressman Wilson to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, looks back on the operation (which eventually led to the tyrannical rule of the Taliban and the training of international terrorists), and tells Wilson a story:
There was once a Zen Master who hears that a boy has been given a horse.
"How wonderful," the people shout.
"We'll see," says the Zen Master.
Then the boy falls off of his horse and breaks his leg.
"How terrible," the people cry.
"We'll see," says the Zen Master.
Soon a war breaks out, and the boy is spared from service because of his broken leg.
"How wonderful", the people shout.
"We'll see," says the Zen Master.

As the Zen Master taught, we usually don't have the perspective to understand the long-term significance of events that occur in our lives. By remaining open to the possibility that we simply don't know, we learn to let go of our immediate response to classify and judge, and thereby develop faith -- which is the existential confidence in the goodness of ourselves and the world.

It is important to understand that these approaches are not intended to diminish the feelings of pain and loss that come from tragedies. Here, we are called to respond with compassion and a desire to help. Once we accept the truth that life's difficulties are the mechanism for growth, though, our resistance to the events that occur in our lives will begin to soften, and we can experience life with openness to new possibilities.