Solutions to the problem of life

I know. I have a tendency to write and think about relatively bleak subject matter. So I want to change tack today and begin with something light and frothy, a simple if-this-then-that statement. Here it is: If it is true that, as the Buddha says, life is suffering, then having a child is one of the most inhumane things a person can do.

Logically, that statement seems to be consistent. But in reality, do I agree with it? The latter half, perhaps; the former, definitely. Life is suffering—it looks something like this for most people…

life graph

A few peaks and troughs sandwiched between a sometimes painful but mostly bearable monotony. The presence of suffering (acute and chronic) is, for me, not really the problem—it’s what to do about it. But I think I’m converging on an answer.


Bryan Kam, in a helpful review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, says:

“Peterson claims that “What you aim at determines what you see,” and this is true. He argues that not only goals but also tools become extensions to the self, and lenses through which one views the world (his views on tools are, as far as I can tell, straight from Heidegger). Yet he came to his own search for meaning first by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and later by a thorough investigation into the suffering in the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi concentration camps, later throwing a few school shootings into the mix (he has a preoccupation with Columbine). It is not that these topics should be excluded from one’s knowledge; education on these topics is certainly critical to preventing their occurrence in the future, and it is almost a moral obligation to learn about them. However this is hardly the place to start a search for meaning, much less to form one’s worldview or to find a set of rules by which to live one’s life. He tries to ground his philosophy in the reduction of suffering, and he is right that suffering teaches important lessons. Most of the world religions made this point two and a half thousand years ago. But his emphasis on suffering shows a rather fatalistic lack of hope for its amelioration. Buddhism’s first claim, as Peterson points out, is that life is suffering, but he totally ignores the fact that the three remaining Noble Truths are about how to understand suffering and how to end it. Peterson seems to stop at “Life is suffering, so let’s maybe try not to increase it,” which is not a particularly helpful position.”

Upon reading that, I saw myself. See, for the past few months, I’ve fixated on the first of the “Noble Truths” and neglected to continue on. Which is silly, because, as Bryan Kam says, the full set of Noble Truths are a playbook for dealing with suffering, a potential solution to the problem of life. They state that, first, life is suffering, second, that suffering comes from desire and aversion, third, that the cessation of suffering comes with the relinquishing of desire and fear, and fourth, that there is a definite path that all can walk to end suffering, should they so choose.

That’s all well and good, and if you wish to learn more about the Truths and the path laid out by them, there are countless tomes that discuss its ins-and-outs. That’s not what I wish to do here. I want to take another look at the responses to suffering.


My understanding of the response to suffering is dependent on four concepts.

First, the idea of difference-in-kind versus difference-in-degree. We cannot change life into something which is completely void of suffering. We can only modulate the degree of suffering for ourselves and others.

Second, consider this table from Venkatesh Rao’s Unflattening Hobbes.


Don’t worry about the contents, just note the groups down the axis: individual, pack, troop, tribe, and imagined community.

Third, immediacy of returns. Suffering can be alleviated immediately, in the present, or it can be mitigated in the future, further down the line, often at the expense of suffering in the present.

Fourth, there is a difference between the floor and the ceiling of suffering. The floor of suffering is the absolute worst case scenario—people without basic human needs like shelter, food, water and security, for example. The ceiling of suffering is the absolute best case—the state of life of those who have every advantage. Between the two is the average suffering the average human is subjected to.

These four concepts, taken together, lay out a few possible options for responding to the suffering inherent in life. I could choose to focus my actions on alleviating suffering for myself as an individual in the present. I could choose to focus my efforts on alleviating suffering for society as a whole sometime in the future by contributing to research efforts on green energy production. I could concentrate on alleviating suffering for my family by developing skills and building a career. I could commit myself to the effort to bring utilities that are considered an indisputable right in the West to the citizens of the world’s poorest countries. These are just a few of the options available.

Whatever you or I choose, know this: the reality of suffering is irrefutable—it makes up most of life and it is not going away anytime soon. But it doesn’t have to be a cause for despair; it can be a catalyst for action. Select the size of the group you want to affect, select the immediacy of expected returns, think about whether it raises the floor or the ceiling and if that is what you want to focus on, and get to work.