I started writing a piece on this a few days ago, but being a tech-savvy IT professional, forgot to hit “Save” before walking away for some other stuff and Microsoft patched my computer while I was gone. I could only assume that the Christian God didn’t want me to publish this heathen commentary (and thus insisted that Redmond release an update, ensured I would be online but suitably distracted, and zeroed out what I had written rather than just stopping me personally), and so I moved on. But damn it all to hell, I keep seeing comments on various blogs discussing the purpose of suffering, and thus I now have to assume that the Christian God was merely testing my resolve earlier. He sure works in mysterious ways!
Damn, it feels good to be an atheist.
All this talk about the purpose of suffering rubs me the wrong way. Suffering is does not exist in a physical sense. You can’t go to the neighbors and borrow a tablespoon of suffering. Suffering is our understanding of the way our brain reacts to unpleasant stimuli. Whether it’s a hungry tummy or a bullet wound or the loss of a family member, suffering is our system’s physical reaction.
To that end, there is no Purpose Of Suffering in the theological sense. Suffering is not the clever mechanism by which God tests the faith of his devoted or spurs them to action. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to it. It’s just that the purpose is by us, not for us, if you catch my drift.
If you are suffering from hunger, you learn at a very early age that eating will resolve that suffering. The fact that there is discomfort spurs the brain to act. If hunger were a pleasant experience, we might well not act upon it, which would lead us to a slow and glorious death by starvation. And if there was a God who made us suffer hunger when we had no means to eat, wouldn’t that make him a sadistic prick? Now, not only are we dying, but God is telling us in a loud and clear way that we are going to die and there is nothing we can do about it.
But what about that other suffering, the one that happens when we lose a loved one or break up with our partner or what have you? Well, these really aren’t the same thing, are they? The loss of a leg and the loss of a child are both awful experiences, but physiologically different. One could wax philosophical about how mourning moves us to be better people or to love our loved ones more lovingly, but that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes, mourning can make us off ourselves. That’s not evolutionarily advantageous for the individual, though it may well be for the species.
My whole point is, the purpose of suffering is to spur us to action. That’s it. There’s nothing hallowed or mysterious about it. It’s not even just people who do it. All life seeks to get past its suffering because suffering sucks, and suffering sucks because suffering means doing the stuff that we shouldn’t be doing or not doing the stuff we ought to. That’s it. No miracles. No God. Just a physiological reaction to stimuli deemed unpleasant by the host.