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Crow: Views and beliefs on human suffering

Crow: Views and beliefs on human suffering

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Suffering has always been a part of human history and remains a present reality. People in early civilizations believed that suffering was the punishment from the gods for bad behavior. Vultures and vipers were designated symbols of evil that enticed humans to behave badly. In Genesis, the snake in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Her act against God’s command led to punishment and the effects of the original sin. Adam and Eve by their disobedience were forced to enter the world of suffering.

“The state of undergoing pain, distress or hardship” is the definition of suffering in the Oxford Dictionary. Suffering is a broad topic that has been addressed by philosophers, theologians, psychologist, neurologist and sociologists. Views of a few philosophers, several faith-based religions and societal suffering will be presented.

Philosophers are known for understanding human dilemmas. Suffering is plentiful in human life. Socrates wrote, “Life without experience and sufferings is not life.” Aristotle wrote, “The soul suffers when the body is diseased or traumatized while the body suffers when the soul is ailing.” A writer and philosopher, Khalil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls.” Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and theologian, wrote, “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller, insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” A spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, said, “I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of inner peace and contentment, which must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion and elimination of ignorance, selfishness and greed.”

Views about suffering have been a part of many religions. Hinduism includes the belief that “One must learn to endure suffering with detachment and acceptance, keeping faith in God and performing actions as an obligatory duty and sacrificial offering to God.” ( They believe that suffering is the result of negative human behavior. Judaism includes the belief that suffering is the punishment for sins which will test the faith of individuals. The story of Job is an example of testing of one’s faith. The Qur’an explains that Muslims must adhere to the will of Allah and recognize that suffering is the selfish and evil results of human actions. Muslims are advised to overcome suffering and to give aid to those who are suffering. From the Bahá'í religion, Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “To attain eternal happiness one must suffer. He who has reached the state of self-sacrifice has true joy. Temporal joy will vanish.” ( The Noble Truths of Buddhism reveal that suffering, pain and misery exist in life, suffering is caused by selfish craving or personal desire, selfish craving can be overcome, and the way to overcome this misery is by following the Eightfold Path. ( For Christianity, Paul presents an insightful explanation in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Romans 5:3-5 also supports the Christian view of suffering, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

In addition to the tremendous suffering of those affected by the virus and those who lack shelter, food, health care, and opportunities, we are witnessing a rise in social distress from the lack of empathy. Too often people mouth empty expressions of sympathy. Perhaps, we could follow the wise words of Dalai Lama. “There is one aspect to our experience of suffering that is of vital importance. When you are aware of your pain and suffering, it helps to develop your capacity for empathy, the capacity that allows you to relate to other people’s feelings and suffering. This enhances your capacity for compassion towards others. So as an aid in helping us connect with others, it can be seen as having value.” Empathy and compassion could help soften the blows of reality until we find ways to improve the quality of all lives in America.

"Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Nietzsche

Earl Crow’s column is published Saturdays in the Winston-Salem Journal. Email him at

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