On presumption against suffering.

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.

In whatever words we put it, we all are building the Kingdom of Heaven, here, on Earth—or looking for it beyond the Earthly Kingdom.



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  1. Thought provoking article, as usual.

    I think you (inadvertently?) “answered” the unasked question embodied in the post. Adam’s sin (passed on to us), put creation out of equilibrium. And the consequences of the misbegotten antistasis includes pain. Mankind, intuitively, is aware of the imbalance in the universe (Romans 1) and reflexively seeks/desires stasis.

    As you correctly pointed out each religion/philosophy is a means to achieve that end. However, in this world of nonconservative forces, each path is NOT the same and by extension, not every path CAN get to a desired goal: equilibrium is not path independent. I believe, Jesus presents us with the ONLY way, the ONLY truth and the ONLY life that will get a man/woman back to equilibrium.

    Indeed, (if my understanding of religions is correct) Jesus is the only one that offers a path that is completely “outside” of ourselves. Curiously, in thermodynamics, for an isolated system to find equilibrium it must (by the 2nd Law) increase its entropy (its disorder must increase). If we can apply sciences most ancient phenomenology to human existence. Trying to gain equilibrium in isolation away from God hopelessly increases the disorder in our lives.

    Systems approach equilibrium fastest when they are open and (literally) connected to an infinite energy source/sink. When we connect through Jesus to the infinite God of the Bible, our lives can approach equilibrium rapidly an efficiently.

    Equilibrium with God eliminates pain, as we know it and as we experience it (e.g., see Romans 5).

    (NOTE: as with most analogies, there are some limits to the application).

    May God richly Bless you Maria Catherine.

    P.S. I apologize that my visits to your blog are woefully asymmetric…

    1. Dear RitW, thank you for this connection to thermodynamics. I haven’t thought of suffering and joy, sin and salvation in terms of entropy and equilibrium, but your analogy is enriching and excellent, and I love it! I must think further into it.
      I am not quite sure what you mean by the “path completely outside ourselves” that you say Jesus offers. What do you mean by “completely outside ourselves”?

      1. Hi Maria Catherine,

        (Please forgive (again!) the delayed response)

        In Scripture, we learn that the salvation of Jesus Christ is a gift, supplied to us by God’s grace. We do not do anything to procure it. It is The Infinite God who reaches out to man and offers a way to ‘equilibrium’ (following on with the analogy). The focus of Salvation through Jesus is what God does for mankind.

        Conversely, all other religions (to my knowledge) focuses on what mankind must do to reach God.

        Hence in Christianity, the solution/salvation/path-to-equilibrium is uniquely outside of the individual, whereas for all other religions the solution/salvation/path-to-equilibrium resides within the individual.

        I hope i have been able to make my thoughts clear, and not muddled things further… also, like most analogies there are likely points where the entropy comparison breaks down (fails)… so i hope to tread carefully along that path.

        All the best my sister.

        God Bless!!

        1. A few related passages that might be useful

          Ephesians 2:8-10
          For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
          Not of works, lest any man should boast.
          For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

          1 John 2:2
          And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

          1 John 4:10
          Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

          Romans 3:20-26
          Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
          But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
          Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
          For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
          Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
          Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
          To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

          Romans 5:1-12
          Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
          By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
          And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
          And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
          And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
          For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
          For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
          But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
          Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
          For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
          And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
          Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

          Romans 8:31-33
          What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?
          He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?
          Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.

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