Eric's essay on suffering

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Eric presented this essay to the other members during the Arguments about morality session at Sol 2013.

The utopian ideal of eliminating all suffering in the world is tantamount to shooting the messenger. Suffering is a message within our bodies and/or minds which tells us about damage and other undesirable events. To eliminate all suffering would be to eliminate the messenger carrying those messages. Now one might say that the utopian ideal is not to eliminate the messengers but the very source of their messages. Utopians don't just want to alleviate suffering by numbing us to pain; they want to eliminate suffering by preventing the damage and undesirable events that cause it.

But this is nonsense. Desire is a form of suffering. People will say that someone wants something badly enough that it hurts. This is not just a cliché, it is a true statement. To have unfulfilled desires is a form of suffering. The suffering motivates you to fulfill your desires. Pain creates motive. But we desire desires. Boredom and lethargy are forms of suffering based in a want of desire. Some utopians, such as Buddhists, desire oblivion because they believe they will be free from desire. But to be free from desire is to be dead. Life desires and life is precious.

Suffering seems terrible from the inside. This makes sense. It has evolved to seem terrible from the inside because it evolved to motivate change. But if suffering is just a message sent within our bodies and minds to motivate change then it is not so terrible from a strategic point of view. Learn to be resilient and you will pass through suffering to motivation and on to striving for positive change. This is a worthy and honourable path.

Do not wallow in your suffering. Do not suffer needlessly. Cultivate your resilience so that you can pass through minor pain and inconvenience on to motivation for positive change. Cultivate your resilience so that pains and obstacles that seem major now will seem minor or merely inconvenient in the future. Cultivate your centered patience and placidity so that minor pains and inconveniences do not even reach your centre.

But do not be caught up in striving for utopian change. Do not strive to eliminate all suffering. Suffering has its place in the world. Suffering forms the steps and footholds of many a worthy and honourable path.

Neither should you become callous to the suffering of others or yourself. Empathy is transcendent. Empathy is motive to alleviate suffering. Suffering is not good. Suffering is not to be extolled. Suffering has a purpose and that purpose is to motivate us to alleviate, if not eliminate, its very cause. Suffering is not an end in itself.

The fact that there is suffering in the world is not reason to despair of this world. It is not reason to hope for a better world in the future or after death. Suffering is a necessary part of a balanced and functioning world. Life cannot do without suffering and the universe is meaningless without life.

The fact that creating more life will by necessity create more suffering is not a reason to avoid creating more life, whether it be conceiving a child or terraforming a world. If it were, then it would also be reason to eliminate existing life. It would be reason for a kind of apocalyptic mercy killing. A total lack of life would not only eliminate suffering, it would also eliminate joy. More life in the universe would not only bring more suffering, it would also bring more joy.

The correct response to suffering is balance. Embrace your desires even though they may remain unfulfilled, for to be without passion is to be dead, and life is precious. Cultivate your empathy even though you will never eliminate all suffering, for the alleviation of suffering is worthy and honourable. Pursue wisdom, for reason will help you guide your desires toward joy and your empathy toward balance.

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