Suffering: Where Humanism Fails
Written over two days and completed at Starbucks in Willow Glen, San Jose with The Killers on Pandora blasting in my ears.
Where Humanism Fails
Thesis: Humanism fails because it has no sufficient answer for suffering.
Problem: There’s no philosophy of suffering within humanism that provides a reasonable framework and perspective that speaks to the human heart.
What does the humanist say with respect to suffering? Most humanists immediately become reactionary and defensive to the question. For the humanist, the topic of suffering is often understood only in the context of ‘How could a loving and all-powerful God allow suffering?’ It’s as if the humanist finds it impossible to speak about – and open up about – intersubjective issues of suffering within themselves. I’m not interested in any pivot towards the dilemmatic subject of suffering within Christianity. What captivates me is the intersubjectivity of the question. When the humanist’s life is falling apart, how can he or she put the suffering into perspective and persevere?
I am specifically talking about dealing with suffering in a very personal way. The perspective I am inquiring concerns the existential human condition. This is where the rubber meets the road in life, in which your spouse hands you the divorce papers out of the blue, or your child is suddenly killed in an accident and now your world feels like it’s falling apart. These are very dramatic examples, but even so-called ‘first-world problems’ involve suffering. For instance, a downward spiral into depression due to losing your job or feeling isolated in life due to possessing no close friendships.
The answer I am looking for is a pragmatic one. One in which is imbued with a reasonable framework that gives direction and guidance to those suffering. Even though it defies reason, a large part of the success of religion is that it provides answers to the dilemmas of suffering. People flock to churches, mosques, temples and synagogues to find order to the chaos of life. Religions provide its members with a framework and foundation to put suffering into perspective. But what does the humanist have? What framework does the humanist lean on to find perspective? This is precisely why humanism fails: The humanist has no reasonable pragmatic framework to address suffering in a personal way.
Sterile Answers Do Not Suffice
To the humanist, I want to say this: stop dolling out sterile answers to deep existential questions! When it comes to suffering, humanist’s address the question like a scientist looking through her microscope at bacteria. The humanist speaks about suffering from a distance, using demonstrable analysis. “Well,” says the atheist, “suffering is part of life, and we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices in the midst of suffering.” Even worse is the humanist who will inject Darwin and say, “It’s part of nature, it’s survival of the fittest, that’s life.” These answers are not necessarily untrue, however, they are not helpful when one is in deep crises. It’s like telling someone who has just been told they have stage 4 cancer, “hey, it’s part of life, everyone suffers.” Sterile answers do not suffice, and this is where humanism reveals its utter impotency.
Perhaps the humanist will interject and appeal to some naturalistic coping method one has during crises. Humanists do indeed have non-supernatural ‘methods’ of coping through friends, family, worthwhile activities, love, a personal project, a legacy, etc. Granted, these are helpful ways of approaching suffering, however, these are nevertheless band-aid approaches. In other words, they bring only temporary relief. Your friends and family cannot always be there when it’s 3 a.m. and dark thoughts are permeating your mind. Worthwhile activities and projects can distract us for so long before we realize how unsettling the ground is beneath our feet.
In fact, I would say that reliance on friends, family, and worthwhile activities are equivalent to the theist’s dependency on a church family, prayer, and worship. True, one is rooted in the supernatural and the other in reality; however, both are strategies that afford a type of escapism. Just as God acts as an ultimate Xanax (an anti-depressant drug) for the theist, so do the friends, family, love, projects, worthwhile activities, concern for a legacy, etc. for the humanist. I’m not interested in surface level escapism, I’m targeting something much deeper. When your life feels like a dark abyss of meaningless triviality. When every day is a Sisyphean trek up the mountain pushing your heavy boulder, only to have it roll back down over you as you near the summit. It is at this juncture in which the humanist simply shrugs his shoulders and appeals to some empty platitude: “it is what it is.”
What would a reasonable secular perspective look like? Moreover, what kind of perspective can we adopt that cuts deep into our worldview, and provides the proper spectacles to understand suffering? For sake of brevity, I will bullet point key points that provide a reasonable (secular) framework to understand and view suffering. I’ll call it, “The 10 Commandments to Suffering”
First Commandment : Limit your attachments, and limit your suffering
All suffering comes from being attached to something or someone. We attach ourselves thinking that “it” will bring us lasting happiness. But nothing lasts forever.
Second Commandment : Everything is impermanent
At any given moment, no matter how pleasurable or unpleasurable your experience may be, it will not last. One must begin that process by appreciating the impermanent, transient nature of our existence. All things, events, phenomena are dynamic, changing every moment; nothing remains static.
Third Commandment : Don’t run away from suffering, rather, sit with it, understand it, and allow it to teach you something about yourself
When suffering arises, lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than protecting yourself from it. Suffering is always an opportunity to learn about yourself.
Fourth Commandment : You cannot control suffering, but you can choose how you respond
Refrain from reacting in a negative way, let the slander pass by you as if it were a silent wind passing behind your ears, protect yourself from the feeling of hurt, that feeling of agony. So, although you may not be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you suffer by how you choose to respond.
Fifth Commandment : Don’t personalize the suffering
Personalizing is the tendency to narrow our psychological field of vision by interpreting or misinterpreting everything that occurs in terms of its impact on us.
Sixth Commandment : Guilt is a self-created prison; you hold the key to your liberation
Guilt arises when we convince ourselves that we’ve made an irreparable mistake. The torture of guilt is in thinking that any problem is permanent. Since there is nothing that doesn’t change, however, so too pain subsides – a problem doesn’t persist. This is the positive side to change. The negative side is that we resist change in nearly every arena of life. The beginning of being released from suffering is to investigate one of the primary causes: resistance to change.
Seventh Commandment : Relinquish the past
The acceptance of change can be an important factor in reducing a large measure of our self-created suffering. So often we cause our own suffering by refusing to relinquish the past. If we define our self-image in terms of what we used to look like or in terms of what we used to be able to do and can’t do now, it is a pretty safe bet that we won’t grow happier as we grow older. Sometimes, the more we try to hold on, the more grotesque and distorted life becomes.
Eighth Commandment : Let your enemies be your Guru
The best teacher is always our enemies. They are your Guru because it is they who teach us patience and tolerance.
Ninth Commandment : When suffering arises within you, observe it without engrossing yourself in it.
It’s similar when my dad would comfort me while watching a scary movie by saying, “It’s just a movie.” My terrified reaction was because I was placing myself in the movie. Our suffering is created in our minds, it’s not a real object. Even though it feels real, the more we can view our suffering from a distance, the quicker we can gain perspective of how to view and understand the suffering.
Tenth Commandment : Cultivate a flexible mind
Without cultivating a pliant mind, our outlook becomes brittle and our relationship to the world becomes characterized by fear. By adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life, we can maintain our composure even in the most restless and turbulent conditions. It is through our efforts to achieve a flexible mind that we can nurture the resiliency of the human spirit.