Life is suffering.
One of the most well known phrases from Buddhism and some contemporary thinkers.
On the one hand, this statement seems too far removed from reality and too vague. It’s hard to interpret it.
On the other hand, it seems important and familiar.
So, what does it mean and how does it relate to living a meaningful life?
Is Life Suffering?
For starters, we need to clarify how we can interpret this statement. To me it means that everyone will experience unavoidable suffering in their lives.
This has many reasons.
First, you, me and everyone we know and love will inevitably die.
Second, given enough time, nothing we do or create will last.
Additionally, we are fragile and can be easily hurt or killed.
Finally, the vast majority of us will encounter tragedy, for example because of the death of a loved one, or malevolence, for example by evil acts of our friends, family or strangers.
Those are truths.
These experiences will inevitable happen to everyone.
Thus experiencing suffering is inevitable.
How can we live a meaningful life in spite of the inevitable suffering?
So far, I’ve explored three possibilities.
“The universe as we know it will dissipate into a fine mist of cold nothingness eventually.”
— Elon Musk
The essence of Nihilism is the belief that there is no objective meaning in life and no values to our existence. In short: nothing matters.
This theory seems grounded in rationality. Nothing we do will last, everyone we know will die and suffering is inescapable.
It seems pretty convincing to abandon the pursuit of a meaningful life in the face of these facts.
Yet, there’s a practical problem with this approach.
If nothing matters there can be no values. If there are no values, there can’t be a value hierarchy and without a value hierarchy you won’t know what is more and what is less important. Then, there is nothing that guides how to act.
Yet, no one acts, as if this is true. Everyone believes, at least implicitly by their actions, that some things are more important than others. Everyone acts out a value-hierarchy. So, even though Nihilism seems to be based on compelling facts, no one acts it out.
Even if we would act it out, it’s not clear how it would help with suffering, once we encounter it. It would probably make it worse.
Clearly, Nihilism isn’t the answer for a meaningful life in the face of suffering.
The essence of Hedonism is the pursuit of satisfactory pleasures and desires. In short: might as well enjoy life, while it lasts.
This idea seems attractive.
We can find momentary relief in playing video games, partying or going on vacation. These experiences offer something to put against the suffering intrinsic to life. They feel good. Why not go all in?
Because they only work in the moment. If we stop whatever is creating momentary pleasure while we are going through painful times, we suffer again. Additionally, no pleasures stack up against truly bad suffering. Finally, even if we would a life full of pleasures, we would hedonically adapt to it and desire more. You can only lay on a beach and drink Tequila for so long, before you’d be bored and chase something new. It’s a never ending story and we would never feel fulfilled.
So, living in a hedonistic manner doesn’t seem like a meaningful choice in face of the suffering intrinsic to life.
The essence of responsibility is to take on the duty of dealing with something. In the context of this article: to adopt the responsibility is to deal with suffering.
This comes in two forms: accepting suffering and voluntarily adopting the responsibility to reduce it as much as possible.
Why would we want to do that?
On a fundamental level this is, because we create suffering every day. Mostly by not doing what we know we should do, or by doing what we know we shouldn’t do. We might not create suffering in that exact moment, but we’re aware that many of our actions will create suffering in the future.
We can stop doing that.
That would improve our lives.
Continuously acting in this manner will also improve the lives of our family, community and maybe society.
Additionally, by voluntarily confronting and reducing suffering, we can develop our character, so that we can withstand ever greater suffering. We could develop into someone who withstands suffering.
Finally, adopting this responsibility means that everything we do starts to matter. This can lead to a deep sense of meaning, which could ultimately transcend the suffering intrinsic to life. We could identify meaning so profound, that it makes life meaningful despite its intrinsic suffering.
By adopting responsibility for the reduction of suffering, we can live a meaningful life despite the suffering intrinsic to it.
To live is to inevitably experience suffering. While Nihilism seems impractical and Hedonism insufficient, adopting Responsibility for reducing suffering could lead to a meaningful life in spite of its suffering.