Many years ago, I read a beautiful description of the sun shining through the branches of a tree in winter. The low sun’s rays come streaming through, but only because the tree is bare. In the summer, when the tree is in loaded with leaves and flowers, the light cannot penetrate, but in winter, when the branches, stripped of their foliage, stand naked, and no color remains, the sunlight can cascade through.
It can be hard to find meaning or purpose in suffering but when, like the bare tree, we experience our own winter, a certain light can shine through and perhaps, if we are open, teach us something. If we are able to believe that we can learn from every experience, then everything we come across – even the most painful parts of our lives – can be regarded as a gift. Of course, it is natural to shy away from pain, but all things come in cycles, and if we can learn to accept life’s inevitable times of privation, suffering and loss, not trying to push them away, we may be all the better for it.
To try to push pain away is, in a sense, to embrace it further. Like the fly caught in a web, the struggle only adds fuel to our condition. Detachment helps – if we can learn to be a quiet observer, watching the vicissitudes of life as they come and go, then we can move through life with greater peace and equanimity.
Neither is it our place to carry the burden of the world’s suffering. It is enough that each of us grows and learns from the experiences of our own life, using our own unique challenges and difficulties to construct a meaningful and valuable experience.
Much suffering is self imposed. As we seek to pursue happiness in external things – money, success, career, social achievements, religion, even family – we lay traps for ourselves. None of these things is bad in itself, but to seek happiness outside ourselves is like trying to lift our own bodies off the ground – it is an impossible task. Happiness will always elude us until we realize that it is not to be found ‘out there’ – it is not something to be acquired, but rather it is found in the silence of our inner world. It is found in the quiet place at the center of our selves, and this silence is available to us every moment. The outside world can only be truly enjoyed when we have come to this realization.
Each of us needs to find meaning. We are, as the philosopher Alan Watts puts it, ‘purpose seeking machines.’ But this purpose is not to do with the acquisition of property, money or worldly success. There is a deeper purpose to our lives, and a sense of this is usually (and perhaps always) arrived at through suffering and pain of some kind. In the words of Nietzsche, ‘Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker, ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’