We seem to assume that joy should be and that suffering should not, and so we search for consolation.
This “presumption against suffering” appears universally human, and it is, I suppose, natural and logical. Physiologically speaking, pain signals disorder—it is a warning of trouble and demands action to be eliminated to bring the body back into homeostasis. It should not be. The same goes for other symptoms we deem to be “suffering”: nausea, itching, fatigue, hunger, thirst, malaise…
We humans are bodied creatures, arguably first and foremost so, and certainly most concretely so. It is our most accessible, palpable, understandable frame of reference—the starting point for self-reflection and identity-formulation we’ve used since the times before abstract thought developed a vocabulary. It is only natural that we extend our ideas of how we operate to our ideas of how the universe operates, parallel how we should be with how the universe should be. It is only natural that we have built our most basic understanding of the spiritual (once the concept of the spiritual manifested itself), of the social, and of the metaphysical on the bedrock of the physical. Our continuously and torturously created binary of right and wrong is essentially congruous to our ready-made binary of healthy and unhealthy.
What I think this means, however, is that all or nearly all exploration by humankind of its existence and its world—its origin, meaning, method, and purpose—stems from a common presumption (a bias, if you will) and shares a common impetus. One might even say we have a prejudice toward the universe because we look around and see it as it is: containing suffering. And we think that it is wrong. Disordered. Ill. Some call it “sin.” Others, “injustice” or “the problem of evil.” Yet third, “imperfection.” Terms abound. We look at the universe and think that it is not as it should be. Because it hurts. And we search for consolation.
Every religion of the world in its inception and its core beliefs and rituals has been a quest for consolation. Consolation comes in the guise of an all-powerful God who meant all to be perfect, will make it all perfect, and in the meantime leads us through the darkness by the hand. Or in the guise of the anthropomorphic gods who face the same problems as we do but on a bigger scale and who take our sides. It comes in the promise of a long path of a transmigrating soul that learns its lessons and is dealt its justice until we get it right. In a moral certainty of divine law. In a heavenly afterlife, a reward for earthly suffering. In a scapegoat that carries away sin, in a totem that takes away danger and terror, in a lifelong training for serene detachment from the false idea that the universe is real—because once the profound emptiness that underlies the scurryings of the world is realized, the world will flicker off into non-existence, suffering and all. That’s right. When the Buddha came to understand that suffering was truly inherent in life, he brought forth a tradition that declared existence itself to be a mistake.
We, humans—we simply refuse to accept that pain could be a normal condition. Is it because we are physically wired to think that it’s not?
Is it because that’s how the universe — or the ultimate cause that pours forth the universe — lets us know that it’s not?
This stance is certainly not unique to religious mentality. Secular philosophy too is a quest for consolation, and so is the pursuit of modern science. By figuring out the world, all of them, with their various methods and intermediary goals, ultimately are trying to achieve the same single end: reduce our suffering—physical pain, emotional, mental anguish, and the dark night of the soul—all rooted deeply in ignorance and separation. To explain so we can fix. To find our place in this grand reality so all things would fall into their proper places. To make us feel better. Because this seems to be one of our most basic, primordial, rudimentary axioms: Joy should be. Pain should not. A presumption against suffering.