Whatever path in life you choose, you will suffer. In different spheres of life, whether you’re experiencing progress, regress, or you stay in the status quo, you will suffer. If you want to achieve anything or lose everything, you will suffer. Is there a remedy for this curse of existence? How can we live if everything narrows down to pain? Is all the misery worth it?
Let’s divide life into four different states or stages. They may relate to various factors of one’s well-being, such as physical and mental health, personal development, wealth, or a sense of belonging. They go as follows:
- Progress ↗
- Regress ↘
- Status Quo →
- Swings 〜
All of these states of life are inextricably intertwined with inescapable suffering. Why is it so difficult to avoid pain and can we do something about it?
If you want to achieve anything in life, you need to work for it. Sure, there are those few exceptions when people inherit large sums of money, but life is not only about money. Speaking of happiness or success in the non-material understanding of the term, for example having a family, fulfilling your individual goals, or experiencing joy, there’s not a shadow of a doubt that one needs to work for it.
And work takes dedication, time, and effort. One has to give up on momentary pleasures – cigarettes, hookers, or reckless money spending – to grant oneself a long-term positive outcome in the future – like physical health, family and friends, and wealth.
Making progress towards reaching your goals, whatever they might be, is sacrificing yourself. Taking actions in the present is supposed to bring about the desired results in the future. Money is the easiest example: You can’t go around spending it on things you clearly don’t need yet desire, because otherwise you won’t have any savings in the future.
You want to win an Olympic medal? Then you have to exercise in sweat and tears, give up on drinking with your friends, and hold a strict diet.
Academic achievement is your dream? You better stop watching movies and hanging out with friends and start studying.
Fancy a career in politics, business, farming? It won’t be just given to you. You have to work for it.
In order to do what you want to do, achieve, or reach, you must sacrifice yourself in the present for the sake of the future. In other words, you need to suffer. You might ask, isn’t this suffering worthwhile, adding meaning to your life? I say it sure is. But it’s still suffering.
Ambition is by far the greatest demon that can haunt you. Imagine you’ve been sacrificing yourself for years, only to reach that one goal. If you’re really driven, then by the time you fully reach this goal, you already have another one. Another summit to climb, another peak to suffer for. What you thought was supposed to be your magnum opus is just another bullet point to put on your resume.
In short, to achieve a goal, you must suffer. Yet, before you achieve it, you already want something else. No satisfaction, only the craving for further progress – further suffering.
Let’s consider a contradictory situation. What does regress mean in our society? We can consider modern well-being in a few categories: wealth, physical and mental health, and happiness-inducing factors (passion, sense of belonging, meaning). Of course, you might go on and find a cornucopia of other spheres that contribute to one’s well-being, but these are the core values we’ll take into consideration.
Hence, regress can be synonymical to getting poorer, getting sicker, going through a personal tragedy or trauma, and losing the sense of meaning (a goal which we want to achieve), passion (a task that entails both temporary joy and satisfaction), or belonging (being a part of a community, a circle of friends, a family).
I believe that there’s no reason trying to justify why any of the examples above lead to suffering. Each one of us knows regress suffering in one form or another. The aforementioned general ideas of regress are just terrible. There’s no doubt about it.
Ironically, the things that give us meaning lead us to further self-sacrifice. If you’ve given up on yourself and devoted yourself to a dogma – a collective identity – you have to make sacrifices in order to prove your devotion to yourself and others. A Catholic won’t eat meat on Fridays and will go to church on Sundays, sacrificing their time and freedom to eat whatever the hell they want. A good patriot is ready to die for his country, and a good environmentalist won’t eat animal products at all.
As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” In times of deep depression or regress, you’re looking for a higher power to give you hope. When we’re in dire situations of personal regress, we want to get out of suffering with the help of something greater than us.
Unfortunately, if you’re about to die in a foxhole – a wartime trench – it doesn’t matter whether you believe in a god or not. You just die.
An idea close to my own experience – radical and unexpected changes in life attitude and outlook on your own life – swings. We’ve already established why both progress (sacrificing yourself for a future that is never to come) and regress (getting worse at various spheres of life) lead to suffering. Jumping from one extreme to the other causes just as much suffering.
Swings make you feel miserable. When it’s good, you’re in high spirits, but you are aware that bad times are about to come. Losing yourself in a passionate endeavour or love might be interrupted by the sudden realization that happiness doesn’t last forever. It’s a sinusoid. When you reach the peak of the mountain, it’s just too easy to fall.
And falling hits you hard. When you’re down – be it a temporary or permanent regress, or even a state of depression in times of progress, you miss the good old days. You desperately want to get back to feeling good, be it in times of suffering-inducing progress or evenly painful regress.
In fact, optimism in mood or attitude swings is looking forward to progress while being in regress (especially in terms of mental health). Sometimes, even though it’s clear that things will be alright, the present situation is bad anyway, and it puts you down.
When experiencing swings in life, you don’t know what to expect most of the times. However, one thing is for sure – suffering. It won’t leave you, no matter whether you go up or down, or stay in the same place.
What if nothing changes? First of all, there are no swings – there’s nothing to swing between. Sure, there’s no regress, but at the same time, there’s no progress. Though progress is clearly sacrifice and suffering, it is somehow satisfying (though not fully).
When we’re in the status quo, we want more. You might say that true joy is when we can be happy with what we’ve got. That’s what many religions advise in order to escape suffering. But how many human beings can actually be happy with what they’ve got. Can you truly enjoy what you’ve got without the thought that you can have more, be fitter, move faster, and be more productive?
Again, if anybody can enjoy what they’ve got in the present, you might proudly call it happiness, success, the pinnacle. However, I personally see it as a lack of suffering. Jesus, Buddha, Krishna – maybe these god-people could be satisfied and achieved happiness, escaped the tentacles of suffering. Such cases are so rare, that one could say they’re against the human nature.
Apart from that, when stuck in the status quo, you wish you didn’t waste time. What does procrastination or binge-watching TV series change in your life? Not too much. When there’s nothing to do, there comes boredom – a friendly reminder about the emptiness of existence.
It’s next to impossible to achieve happiness and satisfaction in the present, hence staying in the status quo only brings us further suffering.
All in all, it looks like we’re in a vicious circle. In times of regress, we suffer from poverty, loneliness, illness. In times of progress, we can never be satisfied with what we achieve. Swings between the two states make you miserable, and when nothing changes you just can’t escape the void.
We seem to be predestined to suffer, born to die, and God may not like us. If it is so, let it be. If there’s no way to fight it, one can only accept it.
Life is suffering. Be it for a greater cause or further degeneration – we suffer every day. If you don’t know which path to choose in life, don’t go for something that makes you happy. There aren’t many jobs for ice cream eaters and pool testers. Try to find something that makes you less miserable instead – something that doesn’t necessarily do away with but helps you forget about the suffering. As Nietzsche said:
“He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”
We already know what the “how” is – the void and eternal search for meaning, the pointlessness of existence, the ubiquitous suffering. Maybe finding a reason “why” to go through all these obstacles – devoting yourself to passion and other people – will give you a reason to wake up in the morning.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that the road you walk is far more important than reaching your goal. Yet, at the same time, choose a worthy goal to make the walk worth walking. It’s a strange correlation, maybe even a difficult one – but nobody said it would be easy.
I’ve been alive for a while. I’ve had more difficult and easier times. I did things I wanted to do and things I hated. I’ve met people who became my friends and those who didn’t contribute to my life at all. I have suffered for myself and for others, we all do it every day. Still, judging by my experience, despite (or because of) all this suffering, it was totally worth it.