A compassionate perspective on suffering

My study of religion began several decades ago with a university class called “Human Nature and Destiny in the World Religions.” It was a special seminar offered by a scholar visiting from Britain. She was a specialist in Hinduism, but the course included coverage of a number of the world’s religions. One of the papers I wrote for that class considered various religion’s perspectives on suffering.

Suffering is a challenging topic to deal with both philosophically and practically. How an individual deals with suffering can affect the course of their life, and can define their approach to faith and religion.

I found a quote in the Baha’i Writings that pretty much sums it up regarding physical suffering:

Although ill health is one of the unavoidable conditions of man, truly it is hard to bear. The bounty of good health is the greatest of all gifts. (1)

The more salient suffering is in our experience, the more obvious it becomes to us that we must find a way to integrate its existence into our perspective on life. In other words, we have to find a way to think about suffering that enables us to continue moving forward in our lives – that enables us to continue living positively. The following quote lays out with clarity the project of finding meaning in physical suffering, and of using physical suffering as a means to progress in life:

As to your question concerning the meaning of physical suffering and its relation to mental and spiritual healing: Physical pain is a necessary accompaniment of all human existence, and as such is unavoidable. As long as there will be life on earth, there will be also suffering, in various forms and degrees. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. This is the interpretation given to it by all the Prophets and Saints, who, in the midst of severe tests and trials, felt happy and joyous and experienced what is best and holiest in life. Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us to better adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self-improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed and that we become aware of its usefulness. … (2)

While suffering may be an essential part of learning and growing in this world, it is still logically and experientially true that good health is preferable to ill health – that good health is a wonderful gift. Besides the innate pleasantness of feeling well, good health is desirable because it enables you to be of service in this world. Good health enables you to make positive things happen in this world, to make this world a better place. This is the ultimate human happiness. Participating in the project of making this world better place is the ultimate human happiness, whether it is enacted in helping a single individual to advance, or in helping a people, a nation, or the whole world advance.

… You should not neglect your health, but consider it the means which enables you to serve. It – the body – is like a horse which carries the personality and spirit, and as such should be well cared for so it can do its work! You should certainly safeguard your nerves, and force yourself to take time, and not only for prayer and meditation, but for real rest and relaxation… (3)

The Baha’i Writings explain that all work undertaken in the spirit of service is equivalent to worshiping God. Service is equivalent to prayer — prayer being defined as a state of  communion with God, communicating with God, and receiving the spiritual nourishment that this brings.

This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise. (4)

And finally, “to be able to help another soul who is in suffering is a great bounty from God.” (5)

These ideas strike me as an intuitively compassionate perspective on suffering and our collective project to alleviate that suffering. They also strike me as a practical perspective. There is a need to be philosophical about suffering — about the existence of suffering — even while we endeavor to alleviate it. Suffering cannot always avoided, but  apparently, there is always a way to approach that suffering in a way that helps us to grow. The quote included above even phrased this “growth from suffering” as “mental and spiritual healing.”




(1) Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdul-Baha, p. 151.

(2) An extract from a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, 16 February 1935.

(3) An extract from a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, 23 November 1947.

(4) Paris Talks: Addresses given by ‘Abdul-Baha in Paris, 1911-1912, p. 177.

(5) An extract from a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, 5 October 1950.

— I found these quotes in the compilation Health and Healing. Their passage numbers in the compilation are: 1. #22; 2. #49; 3. #65; 4. #39; and 5. #72.


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