The inevitability of suffering (and what we can do about it)

The other night I watched a documentary on BBC Two about Parkinson’s Disease, and a clinical trial with 42 patients with the aim of testing a possible “miracle cure” drug that might transform the outcomes of millions of Parkinson’s sufferers globally.

Like many of you, I’ve seen the effects of Parkinson’s up close: the involuntary movements, the motor control effects that make managing body functions that are so everyday and mundane to many of us — and, heartbreakingly, to those suffering before their symptoms arose.

It prompted me to reflect on this entire project, and perhaps to question its validity.

The millions of people who suffer from Parkinson’s every day, those directly affected and their carers, are just a small fraction of the number of people suffering with various other illnesses and ailments and conditions.

In the face of so much suffering, what is the point of a project that puts happiness forward, a project that encourages people to think consciously about their happiness and the happiness of those around them, and to make choices and build habits that contributes to that happiness?

In the face of so much suffering, is lasting happiness even possible?

And it brought to mind some comments by Jordan Peterson, a controversial and divisive professor of psychology from Canada whose books and talks have sparked so much discussion around the world over the past 12 months.

In a podcast interview last year, Peterson said, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering. And there is a lot of malice and bad intentions too.”

It could be interpreted as a bleak message, but it’s an optimistic one too. If we are to face head on the challenges that a life of suffering brings, and we can still deal with them effectively and contribute handsomely, by first being the best we can possibly be as individuals, by then contributing to our family, and by then making a bigger contribution to wider society, then we can live a life of fulfilment.

Fulfilment to me is happiness. Knowing you’ve faced the suffering with dignity and strength, that’s happiness.

Happiness is not all blue skies and sandy beaches.

The murky Tuesday mornings, when you’re not sure if you can make it to Wednesday, they’re important too.

When it comes to the suffering that we all face, we have two choices.

To face it like a warrior, to stand as tall as we can and shoulder the burden in the knowledge that victory is never assured, and defeat will come to us all at some point.

Or to face it like a victim.

I know which one I prefer.

It’s my deepest ambition that when the waves of suffering inevitably come, that I can muster the strength to lift up myself and everyone around me. That would be a life well lived.