Life is Suffering…Well, Sort Of

Sorrow (C) by Alexander Boden -

Sorrow (C) by Alexander Boden –

The first time I heard the phrase “Life is suffering,” I immediately balked. “Not my life!” I thought. “My life is awesome, full of joy and people I love.” It seemed a rather gloomy, even nihilistic, sentiment. Now that I understand the phrase better, I am inclined to agree with it, though not quite in the same way that it was originally meant. I also believe that it doesn’t have to be this way.

“Life is suffering” is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist, nor can I recommend that belief system. I am a follower of Jesus, and what I have realized is that all truth is God’s truth. That is, if something is true, even if it did not expressly come from the Bible, there is no need to fear its origin. True things are always true. Some truths are self-evident, and humans have always thought about the thorny topics of existence; many of them have arrived at the same conclusion, irrespective of dogma.

So then, I offer this phrase as a starting point to examine what suffering is and what causes it. In this context, suffering means the continual frustration of not getting what we want. The light turns red, frustrating our attempt to drive forward (and, possibly, to arrive at work on time). The store is out of our favorite ice cream, frustrating our taste buds. We don’t get cast in the play or chosen to be on American Idol, frustrating our dreams of stardom. The ones we love don’t love us back, frustrating our hopes for romantic bliss. Frustrations big and small occur countless times each day. Some are minor irritants, and some devastate us.

To put it more bluntly, suffering comes from wanting. A friend once said of his child, “That boy is 40 pounds of ‘want.’” What did he mean? That his child constantly attached emotional value to things he did not have. And that is what we all do, isn’t it? We believe wholeheartedly that a game or a new dress or a bigger house or a promotion or a particular person or experience will bring about the emotional charge that will fulfill us in some way.

We constantly hear about want. “What do you want for your birthday?” “What do you want out of life?” “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” There is never an assumption that we might not be in want. How far we have removed ourselves from the psalmist’s viewpoint: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” A translation that brings the point home better is this: “Because the LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

To want, then, is to feel lack. To feel that something is missing, that something else is needed. Wanting most generally comes from not appreciating, perhaps not even realizing, what we already have. I’m not referring just to possessions here, but to all the still-watered, soul-restoring riches of having God as our shepherd. If you don’t realize that you already have everything you need, of course you’re going to think there is lack. If you don’t know that perfect peace is possible, and in fact already in your possession, you will want for it.

Anyone who has read this blog’s earlier posts knows that I have certainly not arrived at the perfect peace portion of this journey! I am speaking to myself, I am learning and being reminded, as I write this. I have not stopped wanting, but as I become increasingly aware of the suffering it creates, my mind begins to re-orient toward what is true, and I want less—and less often.

I am trying to apply this to my daily life, because to want is to set expectations. Every day is a blank slate, and upon that slate we write out our list of wants. Sometimes we do this physically with a “to do” list, but most of the wants are carved into our psyche, setting up the conditions by which we must be happy. If most of the things on our list came to pass, we deem it a “good” day and if not, it was a “bad” day. If things don’t turn out the way we want them to, we are disappointed, angry, stressed, sad. All those emotions are synonyms for suffering.

When we set expectations and hang our hopes on them, life is full of suffering that we create. Here is a practical exercise, then: how about leaving that slate blank? How about not attaching happiness to whether certain things happen? Resolve, for a day or even just an hour, to remember that ultimately, you lack nothing. Relinquish the demands you make upon reality. Let the events of life come to you without judgment. Without suffering.

George Gurdjieff said something fascinating: “The last thing people are willing to give up is their suffering.” Let’s take that up as a personal challenge. Let’s try leaving that slate blank and see what happens. I’d love to hear how this exercise goes for you—and you know you’ll be hearing about mine!




  1. Greg on June 13, 2014 at 6:53 am

    A belated response (your FB notice went over the timeline waterfall without my seeing it).

    As always very clearly presented. Clean and concise –I envy that! And very true. I would venture to add, though, that not ALL ‘want’ is counterproductive. It is a good reward that some of our desires will be met completely.

    Ps 145:19 (KJV) He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them.

    On a lighter note . . . when you said “We don’t get cast in the play” I couldn’t help but think of that play we did in the park. Not a great play. But it was a fun time . . . I thought.


  2. Heath on June 14, 2014 at 1:09 am

    Ha! “Hell is…other people!” That was quite a play. Sorry I haven’t read the stuff you sent me a while back after my Frankl post; I will at some point, I promise. 🙂

  3. Greg on June 16, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Not a big deal. New job. Lots of deadlines. Mild insanity from sleep deprivation. –I know how it is!
    Never expected you to. ‘report back’!


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