Why do we suffer? Can we break free?

Many animals –ranging from worms to mammals, including insects, molluscs, amphibians, fish, reptiles and birds– feel pain. And they do not simply feel a specific, isolated pain, but rather a general malaise of the organism. In different ways and to different degrees, but they suffer nevertheless. We human beings are part of an immense planetary community of suffering life that is overwhelming and disturbing just to behold.

And there are reasons to believe that we human beings suffer more than any other known living being. Our extraordinary neural complexity makes us physically and mentally more sensitive to all kinds of accidents and diseases, conflicts, famines and wars, fears and anxieties, than any other known species, including other human species of the past. We suffer consciously or unconsciously. We suffer because of what we feel and what we think, what we remember and what we fear, what hurts us and what we imagine. We suffer whenever we get toothache and whenever a football team loses. The physical, the emotional, the mental and the social: everything merges and becomes an inexhaustible source of pleasure and joie de vivre, but also of malaise and suffering.

And today, when we have achieved a level of scientific knowledge and technological power as never before, when the possibility that artificial intelligence, neuroscience and biotechnology can overcome all diseases and even death is in sight, we suffer and make people suffer more than ever. We suffer too much. Even, not infrequently, preferring death to life. And we even wonder whether the appearance of this hugely gifted, vulnerable Homo sapiens on this wonderful blue and green planet 300,000 years ago has been worthwhile. And if one day this species surpasses itself and fulfils its dreams of supreme power, will it be for the best? Will everyone’s suffering have disappeared or will it mean the total collapse of humanity?

Two related questions are therefore more pressing and unavoidable than ever: Why do we suffer and make others suffer so much? How can we alleviate so much personal and collective, physical or psychological, real or imaginary pain, which in the end amounts to suffering? All the great spiritual traditions of Sapiens humankind have sought to offer credible and effective answers to these key questions and which are consistent with their worldviews and their possibilities in each time and place. Their myths understood as historical accounts are of no use to us, nor are their explanatory categories and liberating proposals taken literally, but the basic intuitions they suggest can still inspire us. I will refer to three traditions: the wisdoms of India, Jewish prophetic monotheism and Jesus of Nazareth.

1. For three millennia the sages of India have been teaching that we suffer through ignorance or error by identifying ourselves mentally and emotionally with our unreal, separate ego, made up of sensations, emotions, ideas, memories, aspirations, fears… Buddha (6th century BCE) summarised the essence of Vedic and Upanishadic wisdom in his third “noble truth”: the root of suffering is desire, attachment to the superficial and passing, physical and mental ego. Unlike mere physical pain, suffering would be a mistaken mental and emotional construct.

From the diagnosis comes the treatment: the decisive path to free ourselves from suffering is the inner journey –eminently personal and individual– to awaken to true knowledge, to deep awareness of our real nature, to oneness (yoga) with our true original Being, whether we call it Nothingness or Emptiness, the One or the All, or God or Brahman.

This mystical inner path is essential, but will it be enough on its own? Isn’t our interiority perhaps proximality? Doesn’t the awareness of our deep, formless Being perhaps emerge from the concrete physical and chemical, biological, social, cultural, political… structure that sustains and constitutes us? Even if it is true that we suffer because we do not know ourselves, is it not equally true that the awareness of our deepest Being depends on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the bread we eat, the relationships that engender us, the education we receive, the culture that shapes us, the economic and political system that moulds us? How can we free ourselves from our false consciousness without transforming the structures that condition or determine us?

2. The Jewish monotheistic tradition, closely related to the theistic religions of the Fertile Crescent that stretched from Mesopotamia to Canaan, proposed a different diagnosis and a different path to liberation: the prophetic ethic of personal and political justice. It is not a path that contradicts Eastern mystical wisdom, nor is it even complementary. All paths in their true depths need and include each other. The Tanakh or “Hebrew Bible”, written during nearly a thousand years between the 10th and 2nd centuries BCE, is not a divine revelation of truths about the beginning and the end or the ultimate whys and wherefores of suffering. It is a multiform, cultural expression of the human experience: of the hidden Presence that inhabits it and the Absence it suffers, of the Promise that moves it and the Drama it endures.

Genesis tells us that when creating the world, God provided for mankind –Adam, meaning “earth”, and “Eve”, meaning “living”– a garden of Eden without suffering or harm or death, where they could eat from the tree of life and all the others except from the “tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil”. But Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God”: omnipotent, immortal, the absolute lords of Good and Evil. Because they “disobeyed God”, because they had become the criterion and centre of good and evil, they were “expelled” from paradise: we are born and live in pain, we work and suffer, we kill and die, we lust for power and knowledge and that way heap suffering upon suffering.

No longer can we believe in a Supreme Entity, “God”, who in the remote past created the world out of nothing, who imposed commandments, who rewards and punishes, demands obedience, worship and expiatory rites. No longer can we believe in a God who has the answer to our burning question: Why do we suffer? But all that is not the essential part of the Bible. The essential part is that life goes on, that there is suffering and we must fight it, and that paradise, the Earth without evil, is there right in front of us. The whole Bible is basically saying “Another world is possible in this world”. You can, says the Infinite One even to Cain, the murderer of his brother, and marks him on his forehead with a sign of protection “so that anyone happening to meet him should not kill him” (Gen 4,7.15). It means that together you can alleviate and even eliminate the suffering that afflicts you, you can transform the structures –biological, psychological, social, economic– that make life suffer and groan. Choose the good, happy life for everyone, starting with the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Choose justice and peace. Rest and let your neighbour, animals and all beings rest. Take care of the earth, for you are the living earth. Fulfil the commandments of universal Life and Bliss, of the Communion of all beings, of the Breath of the universe and of your own deep Breath.

3. 2000 years ago appeared a prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom in a very particular way I recognise the transforming Breath, the icon of subversive Compassion. I look at Jesus through the diverse and even contradictory accounts that have come down to us about him, I look at him beyond his concrete historical authenticity and the dogmas with which he was clothed centuries later and which today are incomprehensible to us and no longer drive us towards subversive compassion. I don’t think he was perfect, I couldn’t care less whether he was the best. In him I recognise the goodness that dwells in us and can liberate us, whether it is called “God” or whatever. I recognise myself in him. I see him as a figure of the liberated world that we must and can recreate.

He allowed himself to be deeply inspired by the Spirit that moves all prophets and prophetesses, religious or not. He lived and died faithful to his Jewish religion, but he wanted to renew it profoundly, for it had become an oppressive, pathogenic system, a clerical religion of temple and sacrifice, allied to the great idols: Money and Empire. Jesus believed in God and imagined him according to the Jewish religion of his time, but he was not so concerned about doctrines, rites and cultic norms but rather about deep trust, tender mercy, the subversive universal brotherhood of all inhuman structures. Deep down this is the divinity that Jesus inspires in me, not bound to any religious system.

He was concerned with suffering, not with guilt, sin and atoning sacrifices. From close quarters he looked at the suffering of the poor, the sick and the marginalised, and saw what the root cause was: structured injustice, the powers that impoverish, sicken and kill. And his heart was broken with compassion, he was outraged and acted. He proclaimed the Jubilee, liberation from oppression, Peace as the fruit of justice. He told moving, provocative parables, such as that of the Good Samaritan, a harsh criticism of religion centred on orthodoxy, worship and purity, a challenging account of the violence that harms the world, for which the only possible remedy is personal and political compassion. He withdrew to pray alone: to breathe, to find himself, to find his deepest Breath of Life or God, and to feel more united with the helpless multitudes. And he would sit down to eat with the impure and despised. That way, he restored self-esteem and hope to many suffering people, and restored their health, which –like illness and all ailments– is inseparably physical, mental and socio-political.

This is the way: mystical contemplation and scientific knowledge, interiority and proximality, spiritual and structural transformation, subversive compassion and inspired politics… Only by wisely articulating the various pathways and only by travelling them together on a planetary level will we be able to overcome suffering. If not, suffering will have defeated us. Life’s challenge is urgent.

(Published in Italian: “Perché soffriamo? Possiamo liberarci?”, in Paolo Scquizato [coord.], Del male, di Dio e del nostro amore, Gabrielli Editori, 2023, p. 13-17).