On suffering

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.
-Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

I’m still reading Merton’s fascinating and insightful autobiography, and recently I came across the quote above. It’s striking, in part, because it mirrors the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: the truth of suffering.

You are going to suffer. To a greater or lesser extent, you are going to suffer every day of your life. You will be nervous, anxious, angry, bored, impatient. You will experience pain. There is no getting around it. Even if you had all the power in the world and could summon every conceivable pleasure and comfort, something would still be missing. Humans suffer; it is in our nature.

But once you understand that – once you truly and finally accept that suffering is not going away – you begin to find a new kind of power. A new space opens up, a space in which you need not constantly run toward pleasure and away from pain, a space in which real peace is possible. Far from being pessimistic or depressing, the truth of suffering is the root of enormous joy, a joy so deep that it doesn’t depend on external circumstances.

Or so I am told. I am trying to apply this to my own life now.

Of course, accepting the truth of suffering doesn’t mean I put my finger in a buzz saw for the fun of it. It also doesn’t mean I should turn a blind eye to the deep suffering of much of the world, or my own rather privileged position in it. It doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve things, or stop taking medicine. Far from it. The world desperately needs us, and we should be active and engaged within it.

What it means, though, is that the constant barrage of ads, proclaiming you can be happy if only you buy X, can be seen for the nonsense they are. It means that you can stop seeing your dissatisfaction as something broken that needs to be fixed. It means accepting that there will always be someone smarter, someone richer, someone better. That’s okay. That’s life.

Or so it seems to me on this Monday morning.

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