Life is full of pain and suffering. We are told that we shouldn’t suffer and that we should always be in a state of, if not bliss, at least contentedness. The Buddha knew better.
His first truth of life is that life is suffering. It’s not just suffering, of course, it is a lot more things, and it is undeniably beautiful in many ways, but the hard truth is that suffering is a big chunk of it.
If suffering is going to be a constant in life, I think it is appropriate to know how to handle it. Michel de Montaigne argues in his essay “The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion” that we are not so much afraid of death, as we are of pain.
He says that death happens in an instant, but that the pain that accompanies it, that’s what we deal with the most, and also scares us the most. He then begins to talk about ‘bearing the pain’, which I found to be a profound and life-changing way of living life.
The pains of life are there, and they are not going anywhere, but the idea of bearing your pain is there as well, which is something not a lot of people do. People, and I include myself amongst them, many times are ‘led’ by their pain, for the simple reason of not asking the question: Is it possible for me to bear this pain? Or is this pain so grand that I just cannot stand it or control it? Is this pain so big that it’s impossible for me not to succumb to it? Is it not possible to live my life at this moment with a modicum of self-sustainment and dignity at least until it goes away?
The answer you will find is that you can at least sustain yourself and bear it. What this does is that it dignifies your suffering, and you win against something you thought you could not fight.
But we live as if pain and suffering shouldn’t be there. This is the problem, the running away and the wishing for reality to be different.
Montaigne titled his essay ‘The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion’ because he thought a Stoic idea to be real. We are the ones that decide what our fortune is to us. We are the ones that give meaning to our sufferings.
All opinions have the power to impose themselves on us at the cost of our lives. The first part of the beautiful oath the Greek took and stuck by in the war against the Medes was that any one of them would sooner trade life for death rather than their own laws for those of the Persians.
How many men do we see, in the war between the Turks and the Greeks, accept the most bitter death rather than circumcision in order to be baptized? To speak of something from which no religion is exempt. Michel de Montaigne
Some ideals we find higher than our fear of pain and suffering. Such as with family or friendship. We go through great pain for our families when needed. A friend of my brother just gave one of his kidneys to his father who needed one transplanted.
But the question remains? Can I bear the pain? And if the answer is yes, in what way could I do it? This is where dignity enters the equation.
The book “As I walked one mid-summer morning” by Laurie Lee, describes a scene where Laurie, a vagabond himself, stumbles upon Alf, another vagabond in the English countryside.
Alf is a clean guy, cleanliness is the beginning of dignity, it is free. Alf teaches Laurie about vagabonding, and he does so by putting dignified values on a higher pedestal of importance, even though he is a vagabond. Values such as cleanliness and dignity, even while sleeping on the floor.
The sufferings of the vagabond are many, but the way a person bears his sufferings speak a lot about the greatness of his soul. The mightiness of the soul is ready for everyone who will take it.
So, the next time you’re depressed or in pain, ask yourself, can my soul sustain this?