Human suffering: Will we ever evolve out of it?
Will humans ever evolve out of suffering?
In my opinon, no. We won’t evolve out of suffering.
Will humans ever evolve the ability to not suffer?
Yes, I think we will.
Will we evolve the ability to make that change permanently?
Using deductive reasoning, you can see I’m saying something quite provocative:
Humans will one day evolve the ability to never suffer again — yet, after some defining crisis, we will choose to continue to suffer.
This post will figure out what human suffering really is, analyzing its history and its present. Then I’ll speculate on the future, how one day we’ll evolve the ability—the option, the choice—to be rid of suffering forever; and why, at that point, we’ll still choose to suffer.
If you only want to read about the future of suffering, you can skip to it here.
But to get the full import of this post, read on. Before we can think about the future, we need to think about the present and the past.
After you finish, I’d appreciate your feedback, insights, and answers to my questionnaire at the end.
What is human suffering?
What comes to your mind?
A war-torn neighborhood, emaciated bodies piled in ditches.
Starving, owl-eyed children with distended bellies, grasping at the fence separating you from them.
Sobbing children forcefully separated from hysterical mothers on their way to concentration camps.
Or does human suffering mean something more personal to you?
A dark figure, alone with you when you are too young to know better, making you do things which don’t feel right.
The dread when you discover a too-familiar text sent to person you love.
The hot flash of hearing exactly what you hoped your doctor wouldn’t say.
The devastation a little girl experiences when she misbehaves and her toy is taken away. Note: this is probably as intense as suffering gets for a child. Remember this the next time a youngster throws a ‘fit’ over a toy and you think it’s cute or annoying.
All are examples of intense suffering. Just reading them probably evoked discomfort in you. (It certainly was uncomfortable for me to type.)
Humans are hard-wired to expect suffering around every corner. This is what fear is; the expectation of suffering.
Fear evolved in us as protection, and worked very well when we were less sophisticated beings. But at this stage in our evolution, with our powerful imagination to give elaborate life to our fears, they can become quite overwhelming and uncontrollable.
But let’s forget about intense suffering for the moment. It can also be moderate—even barely noticeable—as well.
A quick experiment:
Ask someone: “What does ‘human suffering’ mean to you?” They’ll likely give an example of intense suffering. But why intense? Why is intense our default understanding of suffering? If you think this is a boring consideration (which is understandable), try coming up with an answer to it. Then you’ll see how intriguing it really is. I bet Einstein would have a lively discussion over it.
Examples of moderate or barely noticeable suffering:
When a poor person can’t afford healthcare.
When you get sick with the flu.
When the store no longer carries your favorite product.
The flash of annoyance when someone beats you to a parking spot.
When your internet disconnects for a minute.
When you have to get off a comfortable couch to blow your nose.
If being forced off a couch doesn’t occur to you as suffering, you’re not alone. I imagine many people would draw the line somewhere around the flu; anything less painful isn’t suffering.
But for the purposes of this post, suffering means a whole spectrum of emotional or physical pain—from mildly annoying to excrutiating.
A curious characteristic of human suffering
Suffering functions like the antithesis of currency, and a bit like cancer. Suffering can be propagated, but never given away.
In other words, if someone hurts you and you choose to hurt them back, the revenge won’t cleanse you of suffering. Your scar will still be there. You will only multiply suffering by creating it for someone else.
Deep down, humans know suffering can’t be given away—a knowledge which pop culture instills in us via contemporary fables (books, films, etc.)—yet humans generally prefer to think revenge fulfills. It’s easier to think so. Gives us a blow-off valve—and a perceived control (all an illusion of course) over something daunting.
The history behind “suffering”
We’ve thought about what “suffering” means in the present day. Now let’s consider the past. Once we truly understand the origins of suffering, we’ll speculate on the future.
Suffering was a word in our First Language.
Suffering transcends cultures. We all understand it because it was a word in humankind’s basest, earliest language: communication through action.
This language existed before the spoken word,
before the language of outright gestures,
before even verbs were gesture-words.
Suffering existed before “do” was a gesture.
Suffering was created at the same time as “is” and “am.”
“Suffering” was a word in humankind’s First Language.
“Parent” was another word in this First Language.
If you’re wondering how a language can have words without explicit gestures, I’ll give an example:
If I am there when you are born, if I dedicate my life to protecting you from danger, if I’m bigger than you, and the other beings who big like me don’t protect you the way I do…
Who am I to you?
Think about it.
If you haven’t guessed, my implicit actions have communicated that I am your parent.
Some of the other First Words:
We can assume that the first word Suffering came before Danger and Happiness, because it’s part of their definitions. Danger means suffering will come from that/there/them. Happiness, as we are hard-wired to experience it, means absence of suffering.
Suffering is so deeply ingrained in what it means to be human that it’s hard to understand humans without understanding suffering.
Back to the future. How can we even think about evolving the ability to not suffer? Well… we’re already headed that direction! Now let’s speculate on the future—finally!
We’re on the verge of evolving the ability to not suffer, and we’re headed that way like a twig in a rushing river.
Why do I think so?
- Fear, the root of human suffering, is depreciating in value.
Imagine the fittest (not necessarily physically), most emotionally stable person you know.
Who is it? Your mom? Your grandfather? A coworker you admire? A hard-working celebrity? In a survival-of-the-fittest world, these people are the most likely to survive. They are the best of CEOs and figureheads; matriarchs and patriarchs of solid families; powerful figures most of us look up to.
And what do they all have in common? They have mastered their fears. This is how fear is being selectively bred out of humans, slowly but surely.
- Empathy, the extinguisher of suffering, is on the rise.
Racism is almost a thing of the past. The advent of the internet connects most humans in this world, and encourages acceptance of others’ differences.
Humankind is more openminded now than it has ever been.
- Technology, the unveiler, consistently provides us with better tools to understand the brain, and to change it.
I’m talking about Antidepressants and Ritalin; advances in psychology and psychiatry; and the spread of brands of spirituality like Taoism and Buddhism which attempt to address the here and now and give us access to a more peaceful, content existence.
Antidepressants and Ritalin are not perfect, of course, and have drawn major criticism. But the criticism is generally aimed at the flaws of these medications (they pretend to be perfect solutions, but are not)—as opposed to their purpose.
In other words, most of modern society is okay with medicating towards happiness—and will probably be okay with biotechnology which enables us to be smarter, with better memory, more compassionate, and totally happy.
A crisis, a mass breakdown which will lead us to choose suffering, draws nearer, faster.
According to science fiction, the crisis may happen in one of three ways:
- The Big Ease. Technology facilitates a widening disconnect between humans and suffering, while allowing for safety, pleasure and comfort. We see this issue examined throughout the realm of science fiction, in such stories as:
- Wall-E; the humans on the ship are morbidly obese because their lives have become automated and everything is convenient.
- Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Chronicle; people settled around the galaxy are protected from physical and emotional suffering by “God” (which is actually a group of benevolent humans with telepathic powers)
- Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; a dystopian novel about, on the surface at least, happy and contented people thanks to wonder-drug soma.
In The Big Ease, humans will become too complacent. There is an analogy (if you know who came up with it, please tell me in the comments!) of a man saddling a horse so quickly that he falls off the other side.
That’s what will happen in The Big Ease. We’ll find ways to become increasingly comfortable, less mobile, and life will become much easier and more convenient. And we’ll overdo it, becoming incompetent in the process—like the humans in Wall-E. We see this happening already with fast food, vehicles (so we don’t have to travel the natural way), air conditioning and heating, and entertainment which isn’t physically demanding (Wii is an anomaly).
The average human from a mere 200 years ago could far outrun today’s average human.
However, after The Big Ease, the resiliency of human nature will cause a tremendous backlash once we collectively realize that complacency undermines everything that makes humans special.
Only at that point will we realize that suffering is a precious thing which gives life meaning, and we’ll work to regain what we lost.
Self-imposed oppression. A desperate attempt to eliminate suffering by stripping humans of emotion altogether.
- Equilibrium; in this film, the government has outlawed expression in order to curb our violent natures.
- Fahrenheit 451; not as explicit as Equilibrium, the statement is the same in this novel: expression leads to dissent, which leads to suffering.
- THX 1138; even less explicit, this movie is about mandatory use of drugs which suppress emotion and sexual desire.
As you can imagine, emotion and expression win out against oppression.
Given the choice, humans would rather have emotion and all the suffering it entails over no emotion at all. The characters in these stories even began to understand that suffering is a precious thing.
Apocalypse. The antithesis of The Big Ease. Technology isn’t just about comfort; it also facilitates our violent tendencies. We see this issue examined in sci-fi as well, in such stories as:
- Resident Evil (and countless other new-age zombie stories); a game and film series wherein the ‘T-virus’ which wipes out humanity was initially created as a biological weapon.
- Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz; a novel describing a future where nuclear war has wiped out most of humanity.
- Humans are undeniably obsessed with apocalypse. Take a look at this massive list.
After our self-inflicted apocalypse, the survivors, if there are any, will take it upon themselves to transform humanity with a new paradigm of ethics.
Note that this may not be the end of the issue of suffering; we may at this point fall into complacency or self-imposed oppression. Or we may take this opportunity, while humanity is introspecting, to understand that while suffering is a beautiful thing, it should never be passed on to another person.
And as for choosing our suffering…
We haven’t, technically, chosen it yet. Suffering is forced upon us.
Some people force suffering upon themselves—I’m talking about the cutters and self-mutilators—because they derive pleasure from proving to themselves that they can control suffering. The sad reality is that initiating is not the same as controlling.
I admit, I cuss when I stub my toe. It’s because the suffering was forced upon me. And the worst part of stubbing my toe is the helplessness which comes with the knowledge that it was unintended. Bad luck was in control here, not me. And that helplessness is somewhat alleviated by an explosive verbal expression like a cuss word.
With a sufficiently advanced technology and the know-how to genetically remove pain and suffering out of humans, we will have the choice to rid ourselves of suffering forever.
At that point, we will choose our ability to suffer.
Why? Simple. We’ll realize that without suffering, we have no perspective. Good cannot be good without bad. Pleasure cannot exist without pain.
Can you imagine if every day were perfect, with no lesser days to judge it by? Every day would be perfect, but you wouldn’t know it was perfect because every day would be just like every other day.
In other words: life would be horribly boring.
We’ll realize this when the time comes to choose.
And choose suffering we will. At that moment, it will be transformed from something excruciating to something exquisite. After this transformation, when a loved one dies, the pain will still be unbearable; but it will also be beautiful because you have chosen that pain, in honor of the loved one.
Thank you for reading.
I have made many assumptions in this post. I want to know how close they are to your opinions.
How do you deal with your suffering?
Does revenge make you feel better?
Do you think we’ll ever evolve the ability to extinguish suffering?
Do you think we’ll take that route?
By the way, the inspiration for this article’s featured image is this picture: Sad girl silhouette. The other 2 silhouettes were my doing!