Why is there so much suffering in this life? The question has plagued human beings for millennia, and no worldview can call itself complete without offering an answer.
Unfortunately, it's hard to find an answer that's really satisfying. Historically, four major answers have been proposed.
God is punishing us.
There are many variations on this answer, which is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian theology. According to this view, suffering is ultimately the result of free will. Because we have free will, we are free to behave badly. Suffering is the price we pay for freedom of choice. And because all of us are prone to behave badly at times, we all deserve to suffer.
So then, why would anyone say God punishing us? It turns out free will is not a sufficient explanation. For instance, why do innocent babies suffer? The answer is that they have inherited Original Sin, a stain on their character passed down from Adam and Eve. In effect, God is punishing them for the sinful choices of their distant ancestors.
There is also the question:What about natural disasters, diseases, and other ills not directly related to free choice? Again, the answer is that Adam and Eve, by disobeying God, brought sin into the world, and this sin has now corrupted all of creation, leading to a "fallen" world in which such calamities are possible. God, therefore, is punishing all of us for the "sins of the fathers."
The Hebrew prophets were even more explicit in attributing human suffering to God. In their view, the Hebrew people, who were the chosen people of God, had broken the covenant that their ancestors made with God, and as a result, God was punishing them for what amounted to a violation of their contractual obligations.
In the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible, a more individualized and pragmatic version of this same position was explicated. Here, the idea was that any individual who prospers and enjoys good health and happiness must be "right with" God, while anyone who suffers and enjoys ill health and misery must have disappointed God in some way.
God is not God.
An alternative view is that the very God worshiped by conventional religions is not the true God at all. This view is most closely identified with Gnosticism in its various forms.
Gnosticism holds that the God recognized by most people is an inferior deity (the Demiurge, or Craftsman) who created this world but botched the job. His incompetence accounts for all our suffering and pain. The true God exists only a higher plane and is accessible only to those with secret knowledge (gnosis). Only by pursuing higher truths while maintaining aloofness from this debased world can we maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable suffering.
Suffering can be overcome by the right mental attitude.
Somewhat related to the gnostic view is the Buddhist position – namely, that enlightenment brings with it detachment from the things of this world. As long as a person desires certain outcomes and fears others, he will be prone to suffering, as his desires are frustrated and his fears are realized. But if he extinguishes his ego and becomes indifferent to the world, he will be immune to suffering. The ultimate goal is to escape from the wheel of rebirth altogether, leaving physical reality behind.
Other mystical traditions hold that suffering is merely an illusion, because all of life is only a momentary dream. When we wake in the next life, we will look back on this one as a few moments of disturbed sleep, which we will quickly shrug off.
If suffering doesn't matter, does anything matter? Maybe not. Which leads us to ...
Suffering is an unavoidable feature of a meaningless, random universe.
In this view, there is no higher meaning or purpose to life, which is a purely biological phenomenon driven by evolutionary imperatives. Living creatures survive by killing each other. Carnivores eat other animals. Herbivores eat plants. Parasites infest hosts. Viruses infect healthy organisms and make them sick. Cellular reproduction, essential to maintain and repair the body, sometimes goes wrong and produces cancer cells. Genetic diversity, essential to maintain a species' viability, sometimes produces crippling birth defects. All of this drama is played out against a backdrop of earthquakes, floods, droughts, asteroid strikes, and the other random calamities.
According to this view, there is no "problem of pain" because there's no reason why life should not be painful.
Personally, I don't find any of these answers entirely satisfying, though there may be some truth to all of them. Here is my own viewpoint, for what it may be worth.
My personal view
Suffering, in part, is a way of teaching us lessons or nudging us in the right direction when we've gone off track. And in part it is simply random, a result of the unscripted or improvisational nature of the universe.
As an example of the first point: When I was fresh out of college, I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of working in the movie business. For several years I devoted all my energy to this goal. Time and again I was frustrated. Other people remarked on my amazing run of bad luck. A crucial meeting would be canceled literally as I was on my way there. A producer would go bankrupt just as he was about to start production on a movie I wrote. My own body rebelled against me; I started experiencing digestive problems and other issues. A doctor told me I needed to choose between my career and my health.
Of course, breaking into showbiz is hard. Perhaps my situation was not that much out of the ordinary. But I certainly felt that it was. In fact, my motto at the time became "sometimes you just can't win," the title of a then-current song. I was depressed a lot of the time, and felt my life was going nowhere.
Eventually, in frustration and facing a serious need of cash, I thought of writing a novel. It seemed like a long shot, but I had nothing to lose, and I was pretty desperate. In contrast to my movie experience, this new venture proved immediately rewarding. My book proposal immediately netted me an agent (I'd had little luck attracting Hollywood agents over the previous four years), and within a month I'd received three offers for publication. This was the beginning of a lifelong career in publishing, and while it certainly has had its ups and downs, I never again experienced the chronic rejection and failure that marked my foray into the movie business.
In retrospect, I can see that I was ill-suited for Hollywood and would never have been happy in that field. I love watching movies, but actually working on them — and working with producers and other highly ego-driven, control-oriented, Type A personalities — was not something I was cut out for. Writing books is, I feel, what I was meant to do. In my youthful ignorance I'd gotten off on the wrong track, and something was intent on nudging me back in line. Every setback, every failure, every dramatic reversal, even the signals of my own body, all combined to send me a message, so loud and clear that my friends heard it, my doctor heard it, and eventually even I heard it: You are doing it wrong.
My life in that period was not very pleasant. I would not relive those days for a million bucks. One of the reasons I don't much care for the idea of reincarnation (even though, in some form, it's probably true) is that it may oblige me to go through something like that again.
Nevertheless, the many disappointments and personal hurts that I experienced during that time did serve a purpose. They shoved me back onto the path I was meant to take all along.
Now, it's certainly true that my small example of personal suffering pales before the horrors of famine, genocide, civil war, Ebola, etc., etc. Obviously there are countless people who have gone through — and are currently enduring — far worse things than being frustrated in the early years of their career. This kind of thing is inevitably relative. It's always possible to find a worse example of human misery, and then an even worse one, and so on, ad infinitum. But this isn't a competition. And pain is pain, even if it varies in degree. For me, at least, the painful parts of my life have generally served to push me in what I believe, in retrospect, to be the right direction.
I'm not saying it's "God" who gave me the push. I'm inclined to think it was my higher self, the oversoul that designed my life plan for this incarnation and wants me to follow through on it.
Okay, but what about those greater horrors I mentioned? Surely no one can claim that being eaten alive by Ebola or being murdered by the Khmer Rouge is some kind of life lesson, right?
Right. I would not claim that. This is where the other part of my answer comes in. Contrary to the New Age maxim, not everything happens for a reason. Some stuff is just random. As bumper stickers tell us with admirable concision, s--t happens.
There may be a master plan for an individual life, as designed by an oversoul or a group soul or what-have-you. It does not necessarily follow that there is a master plan for the universe as whole. It does not necessarily follow that no sparrow falls except by God's explicit intention. It does not even follow that there is a God, in the sense of an omniscient, omnipotent master of ceremonies who controls everything and knows where it is headed.
Instead, the universe may be a work in progress. An improvisational performance, not a scripted recital. It may be roughly analogous to a sports event, like the Super Bowl. The rules are set down, and the players are sent into the arena. What happens after that is unpredictable.
Moreover, not all the players will follow the game plan. Some will ignore the path chosen for them by their oversoul, as I tried to do when I persisted in banging my head against the closed door of the movie industry for several years. Had I been even slower on the uptake, I might still be banging my head against that wall today.
And who is to say that all life plans are benevolent, or that all oversouls are equally evolved? Every religious and spiritual tradition agrees that some spirits are "lower" than others. I see no reason to doubt this. For a low-level, malign spirit, the life lived by Adolf Hitler may very well have been the plan all along. Hitler's sense of personal destiny may not have been misplaced. But it was an evil destiny, engineered by a malevolent higher power. (Indeed, it is remarkable how events seemingly conspired to keep Hitler alive and in power, against considerable odds. There is something eerie about his many close calls and narrow escapes from death. For a powerfully provocative discussion of this whole idea, see James Hillman's book The Soul's Code.)
We can posit, then, that much of what happens in the universe is random and accidental. It is not part of any master plan.
Beyond this, some things we see as bad may be no more than necessary consequences of certain fundamental rules. Without gravity, no one would ever fall to his death; but without gravity, no planets would be formed and no life would be possible in the first place. What we appear to have is not "the best of all possible worlds," but a trade-off, a compromise — like an automobile built with lightweight materials that afford increased fuel efficiency at the cost of some degree of safety in a crash.
We can add to this the likelihood that many of us don't fulfil our life plans, and maybe none of us are able to do so with perfect faithfulness. Finally, we can take into account the possibility that not all oversouls (or the Powers That Be, whatever they are) are equally well-intentioned, and that some are actually malignant.
This approach lacks the comforting simplicity of any of the single answers listed at the start of this post. Instead, it can be seen as incorporating parts of each.
If we stray from the life plan laid by our higher self, then our own choice (free will) is responsible for the suffering we experience as the oversoul nudges us back into line ("God" enforces the terms of the contract). We are born into a world where good and evil coexist, a world that was imperfectly designed (gnosticism) or corrupted (original sin). We can minimize suffering by recognizing the fleeting nature of all earthly things and by striving for spiritual union with the oversoul (detachment and enlightenment). Still, unpredictable calamities will sometimes strike because of the improvisational nature of the ongoing performance we call reality (randomness). But not to worry too much — life is short, and immortality is long (life is a dream), so in the end, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
I admit that this is something of a hodgepodge — one from Column A, one from Column B. It is not a testable hypothesis, not a "scientific" proposition at all. It's a belief system, like all the ones I listed above (and yes, even materialism is a belief system). I find it broadly satisfactory, though I would prefer it to be simpler and more aesthetically pleasing.
But, like everything I write on this blog, it is merely a work in progress, subject to future improvement. For now, it's the best I can do.