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What is suffering?

In Buddhism, there are four noble truths. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. I am not a Buddhist (and I’m working really hard to resist the line “but I play one on social media”).

I admit, though, that I am attracted to these four noble truths. I’ve done a little reading (you can do more here) and meditating on them, and lately, after experiencing one of life’s most universal and profound causes of human suffering, a lot of thinking. And praying. And crying. And trying to get it, to understand my suffering, my attachments and the path I am on.

Here’s what I know. My suffering is real. I hurt. I am sad, bereft, uncertain – I’m finding myself in entirely new territory. It’s easy to be intimidated, worried, sorry for myself, fearful. I am not minimizing my suffering. Indeed, my training in counseling reminds me that I would serve myself well by allowing myself to feel those sad, uncertain and bereft feelings whenever they arise. I’m not pushing them down or resisting their truth or trying to pretend that they don’t exist.

Still. There is something else that I do know: everyone suffers. Everyone is suffering. Just this past week – and just in my own family! – one person had a life-threatening motorcycle accident, a near-miss, thankfully, but it was close; another person who was 90 years old died of pancreatic cancer after beating Covid and living an incredible life; another went to the ER with chest pain and bone pain, and is still following up with other tests, although she’s okay for now; another one, very physically fit, went hiking in the woods with her family and slipped on a wet log, dislocating and fracturing her ankle resulting in hours-long surgery and eight to ten weeks recovery in a wheel chair. Others in my family worry about their own health, their work and income, their future in so many ways.

I have friends with sickle cell anemia, friends who are homeless, friends with progressive life-threatening illnesses. I also have friends who love me. Thank God. Because, like all my friends, and all other people I do not know, I am suffering. All the people in the world. The whole world. All those people, some more than others, some now, some then, some in the future. But all of us – all of us. We all suffer.

To paraphrase Saint Francis, Lord, let me get and accept the help I need. And give me the strength to give help where it is needed. I am as human as I am and want to be the best human to others that I can be.


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