Voluntary Acceptance of Suffering

A Life Philosophy

The Pursuit of Happiness is often considered to be a phrase that defines life. Life is a pursuit of happiness. You strive for happiness in life and if you succeed you get happy. Success becomes a measure of happiness. If you are successful in career, relationship, finances, academics, health etc. then you will be happy.

But this isn't always the case. Successful people can be sad too. Moreover it's not easy to be successful in all these areas simultaneously. For example, to be at the top of a workplace hierarchy, people often have to sacrifice relationships and even health. If you aim for a more balanced success, where you are not at the top of your career but still doing okay and have a good relationship, good finances and good health, even then, happiness is not guaranteed. For one, tragedy can strike at any time. Someone you love can die. You can get a disease despite being healthy. Accidents can happen. The economy can decline and your finances can take a hit and you can get laid off without your fault. Your spouse can leave despite having a good relationship. Shit happens.

The problem with this philosophy is that the goal of permanent happiness is unrealistic and it causes even more suffering than is necessary. You are always discontent because you aren't happy all the time. You think that if you could just be a little more successful in one or more of those areas of life, you'll be happy. But that mystical mountain top never even comes into view.

It would still be a good life if you are disappointed in yourself forever but you keep striving up the mountain all your life. But this philosophy often makes you resentful, especially when combined with the fake perception of happiness of other people, fueled by unrealistic stories about love and success in books and movies, and the pretentious content generated by other people for social media. You feel that the goal is achievable and that most other people have achieved it and are happy based on how happy they look in their Facebook photos and it makes you sad that you haven't achieved it yet. It can lead to a dark place where you don't want to strive for happiness anymore and would rather try to make others less happy.

But the biggest problem with the pursuit of happiness philosophy is that it is self contradictory. You want to be happy so you want to succeed in various areas of life but succeeding in any of those areas isn't easy. It involves suffering. And since you are seeking happiness you want to avoid all kinds of suffering. The end result is that people get stuck in pursuing momentary happiness; through drugs, shopping, food, TV, internet, porn, sex, etc. and always stay sad at their core because they can't achieve success. You get addicted to these momentary pleasures because the moment you are not doing any of them, you come face to face with your sad existence once again.

An alternate philosophy is that life is suffering and the best way to live is to voluntarily accept suffering.

Why is life, suffering?

Life is suffering by its very nature. Life is extremely rare and fragile. We only know of earth, out of the entire universe that we've looked at (which is only a tiny fraction of the universe), that can support life, and even our tiny speck of dirt of a planet maintains life in a delicate balance. If the earth gets a little warmer or a little colder, if the atmosphere gets a little thinner or a little thicker, life would cease to exist.

Life is also transitory. Every individual living being is born and eventually dies. Death is an inevitable consequence of being alive.

Life is vulnerable to random chances. Any random event can kill you in an instant. Any random event can destroy all life in an instant.

Life is a constant process of change. Within us, cells are constantly dying and new cells taking their place. In a human being's life, they have to constantly change to adapt to changing circumstances. They learn to be a part of society as a child but by the time they grow up, society is already changing.

For humans, living in a society, interacting with other humans, who have their own desires and beliefs, makes it even more of a challenge. Because of our enhanced intelligence, sooner or later we wonder about what our life means. Why are we even alive? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life?

Societies and individuals have tried to answer these questions in various ways throughout human history and the closest we got to the best answer was god. Believing in a supernatural power looking over us and looking at us, helped us feel that we were created for a purpose and that our purpose was to live righteously according to the rules laid down by this god. But since science has grown, slowly religious thought has lost its power. It's hard to believe in mythological stories if you are even slightly rational in your thinking. New Age Spirituality has tried to replace god with spiritual concepts such as a universal consciousness but even that falls apart under scientific scrutiny. The scientific view is that there is no meaning of life, which is a non-answer. Not having a real answer to these questions, further adds to the suffering.

All of these factors lead to life being suffering, with happiness, satisfaction, contentment etc, being things that only visit us for a few short moments during our life. Pain and suffering are the constants.

Is Life Unbearable, then?

So if life is suffering, does that mean it's unbearable? Should we just end it and be done with it?

A meaningless, purposeless life can be unbearable. Those pursuing happiness and getting stuck in seeking momentary pleasure, often find life to be unbearable. But having a purpose that you believe in and suffering for that purpose, makes life bearable by giving it a type of nobility.

The myth of Sisyphus is actually a good metaphor for this. Sisyphus is given the task of rolling a large boulder to the top of a mountain but every time he tries to rest the boulder rolls back down. It's an unending, meaningless task. But if you make it your purpose, you could live with a sense of contentment. You wake up everyday and push that boulder, without worrying about how hard it is and how meaningless it all is. It's your job to push the boulder so you do it with sincerity and full commitment. You don't get discouraged every time it rolls back. Just go back and start rolling again.

That kind of a life has a certain honor in it. It is certainly better than sitting on the side of the road and crying about the meaninglessness of the task. Worst idea would be to say, “it's all so meaningless, I'm just going to kill myself.” Just keep rolling the boulder and who knows, you might get somewhere eventually. If nothing else, you'll grow strong doing hard physical labor daily.

But to quietly roll the boulder daily needs you to voluntarily accept suffering. You accept that life is suffering. You accept that no matter which path you choose, you won't ever find permanent happiness. And then you can steel your face and just get on with it. Giving it your best on a day to day basis. Going to bed tired and content.

Practical Benefits of Accepting Suffering

When you shift to the voluntary acceptance of suffering philosophy, you'll find that it gets easier to succeed because, as I said earlier, success requires you to go through suffering. There are a lot of practical applications of this philosophy in your daily life, even if in the long term, it's all just a labor of Sisyphus.

When you accept suffering, you can work hard at your career, despite all the suffering it causes you. Bad boss, bitchy coworkers, long hours, boring work, doesn't matter. You accept suffering and keep working hard.

It will help you build good relationships because truly loving someone is an act of suffering too. You need to accept them as they are and not as you picture them or want them to be. You need to live with their flaws and make compromises when necessary. That's all suffering. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the submissive kind, verbalizing your needs and demanding your partner to compromise, also requires suffering and so you need to face that.

Health takes suffering to maintain. Going to a gym is suffering. Waking up early is suffering. Eating healthy food is suffering. If you are after happiness, you'd never want to move unless absolutely necessary. You'll want to take the lift instead of the stairs, take a car even if you just need to go nearby. You'll not want to eat anything that's not tasty. You'll never want to leave the comfort of the bed in the early morning.

Finances also improve when you accept suffering. Not buying everything you desire is suffering. Putting money into savings every time you get a paycheck is suffering. Controlling your urges is suffering. Learning personal finance and investment strategies is suffering.

Students who suffer, do well in academics. Studying throughout the year instead of right at the end means acceptance of small amount of daily suffering to avoid extreme suffering right at the end. It also means giving up daily pleasures of partying with friends and taking it easy.

Avoiding all kinds of suffering is a bad idea. Parents who try to shelter their kids from all kinds of suffering do more harm than good because their kids grow up and suddenly have to face the world on their own and they don't know how to face challenges and how to suffer and grow. If Buddha's father couldn't shelter him from suffering, despite building a paradise of momentary pleasures, then no parent can. It's better to expose your kids to suffering little by little to teach them how to accept suffering and how to grow through suffering.

voluntary acceptance of suffering

There are some other ideas that go well with the voluntary acceptance of suffering philosophy. I've found that these ideas are important for living a good life and the fact that they resonate well with this philosophy shows me that this is the right path.

Entropy

I got interested in entropy long back when I tried to understand the universe in terms of entropy and energy and evolution. In simple terms, entropy is the measure of disorder. Any closed system is always moving towards higher disorder, unless energy is applied from outside the system to maintain order. This has practical applications in our life.

The best example of entropy is your house or room. If you don't apply energy in cleaning the room regularly, entropy slowly turns your house into a chaotic mess. Disorder will always increase unless you apply energy to maintain order. It's not my point of view but the second law of thermodynamics.

Our body can also fall into disorder if we don't apply energy to maintain it. We need to exercise regularly and eat healthy in order to keep our body in order. Otherwise we move from fit to unfit to unhealthy to getting a disease.

Our minds also fall into disorder when not maintained by regular energy application. If you don't spend some time sorting out your thoughts, recognizing and dismissing negative thoughts, encouraging positive thoughts, your mind will slowly become chaotic. In order to maintain mental cleanliness we can meditate, write in a journal, write down our goals, make plans, put our thoughts to paper so our mind can remain uncluttered, analyze our fears and worries by writing down all pros and cons and most importantly, we need to stay busy during the day so we don't have a lot of free time to engage in random thoughts. An empty mind is the devil's workshop. If you are voluntarily accepting suffering and stay busy throughout the day, you will fall asleep tired as soon as you hit the bed and you'll never have time to think about crazy things.

Our careers, our finances, our studies and our entire life can become disorderly and chaotic if regular energy is not put in to maintain it in order. That's why a life management system is so necessary and yet most people don't do it. Having a routine is a good way to manage life. Having a diet plan, weekly or biweekly, for example, can make it so easy to do grocery shopping and eat healthy.

Entropy is also a measure of time. The best scientific view of time is that it is the direction in which entropy always increases. And like time, entropy is a small but constant force in our lives. We don't see time but every second it is ticking away. We don't feel the force of entropy but little by little it is chipping away at the order of our life. Entropy is like the tortoise and we are like the rabbit. If we keep running, we can stay ahead of it but if we relax and sleep and don't put in energy, it will overtake us and then our life will be pure chaos.

Responsibility

I've always wondered what it means to grow up. I'm 33 and still don't feel like an adult. I thought that once you start thinking that you know everything, or that you understand how the world works, you become an adult. This was a negative definition because I saw that adults often are stubborn about their world view and don't always do the right thing but they do believe that what they are doing is right. But now I've realized that those people aren't really adults. They are just stubborn and stupid kids who think they know everything.

Being an adult means being responsible. Accepting responsibility is the one thing that makes you an adult. Accepting responsibility is suffering. It would be so much easier if we could not accept responsibility and just have someone look after us forever, basically staying a child forever, depending on someone else, our parents, god, our partner, to be the responsible one and guide us through life. But then we also act out like kids and don't want to listen to them and make mistakes.

Accepting that you are responsible for your own life is the first step in becoming an adult. You are responsible for your own happiness and success and it is your responsibility to suffer for that success.

The next step is to take on responsibility of others; maybe your old parents, your partner (although it would be better if your partner is also a responsible adult), and your kids. This is an act of accepting suffering once again and many people do it involuntarily and then end up being bad parents and partners and children. If you are thrust into these roles, and don't accept this suffering voluntarily, then you can be resentful. You'll feel like you've been burdened with this responsibility that you never wanted. You have been forced to take care of others when you wanted to live your own life and pursue your own dreams.

This is why the voluntary part of this philosophy is so important. A lot of people accept suffering but they do it begrudgingly and that leads to a negative point of view.

The final step in taking responsibility is to take responsibility for others who are not even your family. This could mean helpless people in your neighborhood or even all of humanity. This is where greatness is achieved. Who forced Gandhi to suffer so badly for all Indians? No one. If someone had forced him, he would have given up much sooner. He voluntarily accepted the responsibility and the suffering and it gave his path in life a touch of nobility and greatness. Great men and women take responsibility of the entire human race.

Responsibility is honorable. People will respect you if you are responsible on your own. People disrespect those who shirk their responsibilities.

Sacrifice

Another concept that goes well with responsibility is sacrifice. This is a concept that I've only just understood and it blew my mind.

As far as we know, humans are the only animals who are aware of the concept of future. Some animals like to save food for winters; bears fatten up for winters; but these might just be instinctive behavior without the understanding of why they are doing it. Only humans know that there is a place out there called the future and we will be at that place some day. It's not a physical place but a temporal place.

It was easy to think of god as ruling the future. Only god could see the exact future and we could only imagine various versions of it. That's where the idea of sacrifice originated. Humans felt that they needed to sacrifice to the gods to keep them happy so that their future would be good. If they didn't sacrifice, and the gods were unhappy, their future might be bad.

Future is a scary thing. You don't know what is going to happen and so it's reasonable to want to make sacrifices in order to ensure a better future. It makes you less anxious. And so people sacrificed food, animals, and even humans, to please the gods.

But what really was happening was that these primitive cultures were playing out the idea of sacrifice before they even understood it or could articulate it in abstract form. This is true for almost all concepts. Psychologists have found that very young children can act out the rules of a game while playing with others but when asked to explain the rules of the game they can't do it. When humanity was in it's infancy, people acted out these ideas through their actions and slowly we have developed theories and philosophies to articulate them. Sacrifice is one such idea.

The idea that you can make sacrifices in the present to ensure a better future is absolutely right if you think about it. If you are a student, you have to sacrifice fun in the present and study to ensure better marks in the future. Children are always told to study and not play too much, i.e. sacrifice the present to ensure a better future.

If you save money in the present, you are sacrificing your urge to buy something (which you probably don't really need) so that you can have a better future. When you eat healthy and exercise, you are again making a sacrifice.

The whole concept of accepting suffering voluntarily is a sacrifice you need to make in order to ensure a better future.

And why is it that this works? How have humans figured out that making such sacrifices in the present will ensure a better future? Well, because we live in societies and responsible people who sacrifice in the present are good for society. Irresponsible people who only live for the present are bad for society. If everybody only cared about momentary pleasure, that would form a bad society and that's kind of what we are seeing today in the world.

And so, unknowingly or knowingly, humans have this inbuilt mechanism in society where those who make sacrifices are rewarded in the future. That's just how our society is set up. And it's not just a social construct, even our biology is set up that way. As I said, eating healthy and exercising leads to better and longer life in the future. That's biology, not something that humans created. Our society is built on our biology.

It is mind blowing that humans were able to figure this out and I think that maybe humans never figured it out consciously, but just built societies unconsciously based on the biological and evolutionary systems that were in place. Whatever it is, it is brilliant that this works.

So making sacrifices is important. And the biggest sacrifice you can make is giving up momentary pleasure and instead taking on suffering in the present voluntarily to ensure a better future.

I must add again that it has to be voluntarily and not begrudgingly. That's where responsibility comes in. If you explain this to a teenager, they might say, “Alright! Fine! I'll make sacrifices! Are you happy?” But that attitude will make it much harder to make these sacrifices because you are doing it begrudgingly. An adult will say, “Ok. Now I get it. It's my responsibility. I have to be a responsible adult. I'll do it.” And that is the attitude we need to make this philosophy work.

An interesting corollary to this idea is that if you are miserable and your life is chaotic, make a sacrifice and see what happens. The sacrifice has to be something that you value. Find something that you value a lot, and maybe you know it's hindering your progress, and sacrifice it. And see what happens. To me it's just an idea and I'm not sure whether this will work every time but it's an interesting concept.

Truth

Truth is the last concept that I want to talk about that fits well with the voluntary acceptance of suffering. Gandhi called his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. And if you read it, it's not just an autobiography of a great man but a philosophical treaty. The reason why Gandhi was able to take on the responsibility of an entire country and make all those sacrifices and voluntarily accept all that suffering was because he was dedicated to the truth.

Truth might be the highest concept out of all other concepts I've talked about. It is the only thing that gives our life some real meaning and purpose.

At the highest level, truth is the absolute reality of the universe. We don't know what it is. Religious stories don't work anymore and scientists have found that the more they look, the more things they find that they can't understand. But it is not important to know the universe's absolute reality. Science's close approximation works for us and has led to this great technological revolution.

What is important, is to understand that there is an absolute reality out there. Postmodern philosophy says that there is no absolute reality and there is no right or wrong and no true or false. It says that what is considered right and true is just an opinion of the powerful, used to maintain their power and oppress the powerless. They believe that even reason and rationality are part of the power game of the patriarchy. They don't want to discuss anything because they don't want to play the game invented by the patriarchy. They just want to destroy patriarchy and bring about an egalitarian society. But they might just destroy everything and bring about absolute chaos.

Because without truth, life becomes meaningless. Having an absolute reality out there, gives us something to aim at, not just in terms of scientific inquiry but also in relation to our life philosophy.

In an individual's day to day life, truth can be the shining north star that gives them reassurance that they are on the right path. No one can ever be completely sure. And often those who are on the wrong path are the only ones who are sure that it is the right path.

Aim for complete honesty with yourself, and you will realize that voluntary acceptance of suffering is the right path. You'll find that responsibility and sacrifice are noble ideas worth adopting. The truth has always been combined with the words noble and honorable.

The practical reason for this can again be explained in terms of social evolution. Societies that encourage people to be honest and where most people are honest, are societies that succeed. But when people start living by the pursuit of happiness philosophy, society can deteriorate.

The current human global society is a great example of this. Every one is taught 'honesty is the best policy' when they are kids but they are also shown by example that lying can get things done. This is because of the paradox that in a society where everyone is honest, the liar will succeed the most because everyone will trust him. This is why I believe that our society encourages hypocrisy. If you preach honesty as the best policy and lie all the time, you'll get the farthest because you are encouraging society to remain honest so that you can get the advantage of lying.

But in a society where everyone lies, lying loses all its power because no one trusts anyone. Everyone expects you are lying and so they don't trust you. This is partially where we are right now as a global society. And in a society in which everyone lies, the man who speaks the truth has a special place. Truth speakers are initially attacked viciously. It's just the society trying to eliminate what it thinks is a virus. But if truth speakers can suffer the attack and not give in (which isn't always easy and you might even die before the attacks stop), eventually they gain great power. Gandhi is a good example of this.

To be dedicated to the truth at all costs requires great suffering but at the same time it makes it easy to suffer. Even in mythological stories, it is often the one who sees with his eyes open and speaks the truth about what he sees, who is the hero. Speaking the truth is important. Remaining silent is a great sin. And speaking falsehoods is the greatest harm you can do to society and to yourself.

Psychologists have found that when you tell a small white lie, it creates a neurological circuit in your brain that makes you feel okay about it. So the next time it gets a little easier to lie. And the more lies you tell, the stronger this circuit gets. Eventually you turn into a pathological liar who can't speak the truth even when you want to. You start lying about small things which you don't need to lie about.

And the worst stage is when you start believing your own lies. When I say that people start believing their lies, I don't mean that they commit to their lie. I mean that they truly think that their lie is the truth. They become delusional. Even memories of an event can change in their mind. Their untrue version of the event becomes true in their mind and they can't understand why the other person is lying.

Lying to yourself is the worst idea because then you have no compass to guide you through life. You'll make random decisions and end up in chaos. The truth is a guiding star that you must have in life.

It also means that you need to seek out the truth about the world. Don't settle for the world view you currently believe in. Question it, test it. Read and gain knowledge. Don't believe others without thinking about it yourself. A good way to know if some idea is true or not is to look for different levels of analysis at which the idea resonates.

The voluntary acceptance of suffering is an idea that resonates at many levels. Starting from getting fit to doing well in career to doing well in relationships to what great men like Gandhi and Buddha said, voluntary acceptance of suffering strikes a chord at every level. I haven't been able to find any level where it doesn't resonate at all. And that's how I know that it is as close to the truth as can be.

The pursuit of happiness fails because of the dissonance at the long term and short term levels. You are pursuing long term happiness but for that you need to suffer in the short term. And if you are pursuing short term happiness then you can forget about long term happiness.

The only counter argument I could think of was that pursuit of momentary pleasure can work if you are extremely rich. You can spend your entire life just seeking momentary pleasure. You can afford it and die having spent your entire life enjoying food and sex and shopping and all other kinds of pleasure.

This idea is appealing but there are multiple examples of it not being true. The most recent that comes to mind is Chester Bennington's suicide. He was the lead singer of one of the most successful rock bands ever, Linkin Park. He was definitely rich and doing what he loved. Still he committed suicide. He wasn't happy. His close friend and his son's godfather, Chris Cornell, had committed suicide a few months ago. Another rich successful guy doing what he loves who killed himself.

You'll find multiple examples of rich successful people being on all kinds of drugs; anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, sleeping pills etc. Why do they get depressed or anxious or have trouble sleeping if they can pursue momentary happiness all their life?

It's because it's the shallowest way to live and there's a biological reason for that. All of these momentary pleasures work by releasing dopamine and other endorphins in the brain. These chemicals make us feel happy. The way addiction works is that at first a small amount of the substance can give us a release of endorphins but every time we take it, we need a larger amount to get the same high. And it becomes an endless spiral.

So if a poor person became rich, for the first few months they will have great fun buying stuff and sleeping all day and eating whatever they want and sleeping around. But slowly it will stop making them feel happy. They'll need to seek out bigger highs. But there's only so much sex and food and shopping that you can do. It's like climbing a hill that keeps getting steeper the higher you go. You can never reach the top and be happy forever.

This is how truth can set you free. And the truth is that the best way to live is to take responsibility and make sacrifices in the present moment, fight entropy by applying regular energy to maintain order, and voluntarily accept suffering.

When Not to Accept Suffering

Voluntary acceptance of suffering might sound like a rephrasing of the ancient philosophy of stoicism. But as far as I understand, stoicism tells you to accept all suffering with a stern face. I need to make it clear that I'm not talking about passively accepting all kinds of suffering.

There are two types of suffering; suffering that leads to growth and suffering that leads to decay; and you should never accept the kind of suffering that leads to decay.

A bad relationship is a good example of this. If someone close to you, your partner or your family member, emotionally or physically abuses you, you should never accept that suffering. You should never think that it is just their nature or just your lot in life. Because emotional abuse adds up and slowly leads to your decay. Standing up to such people is the good kind of suffering. Letting them go and cutting them out of your life is the kind of suffering that you need to accept.

If your life is chaotic and a complete mess, it will cause suffering but this is again the kind of suffering that leads to decay and you shouldn't accept it. Sorting yourself and sorting your life requires the good kind of suffering that leads to growth and that is what you need to accept voluntarily.

Photo Credit: monegka Flickr via Compfight cc