The questions of suffering

Suffering, more than anything else, demands answers.

But what kind of question does suffering want us to ask? And what is the answer meant to do?

You’ll get very different kind of answers, practical responses and even dispositions toward life itself depending on your angle of approach to the question of suffering. It might even be useful to construct a personality typology on the basis of the person’s (or group’s) habitual question to suffering.

Let’s use a list of interrogative pronouns as a compass for taxonomizing angles of approach to our question.

  • What? The question of Object/Idea/Action
  • When? The question of Time
  • Where? The question of Place
  • How? The question of Manner
  • Why? The question of Reason
  • Whose? The question of Possession
  • Which? The question of Specific subject
  • Whither? The question of Goal
  • Whence? The question of Source

I definitely have some strong preferences on which angles of inquiry produce superior questions, answers, responses and life dispositions. For instance asking “who caused my suffering?” tends to lead into resentment and desire for retribution; where “why is there suffering?” or “how should I suffer?” or “how should I approach suffering” leads (or can lead) discover meaning in suffering; and “what causes suffering” leads toward discovering practical strategies for reducing suffering.

To choose, we must see the choices in the first place, and this means noticing which questions we habitually ask, which questions we to neglect, and most importantly of all, which questions we have never conceived, the questions and possibilities to which we are blind.

This freedom of inquiry might be our very best freedom. All too often we start the answer we want to believe and then ask  ourselves and others leading questions that induce that answer. This strategy produces tension between belief and truth, then fear of truth and finally hostility toward reality.

We do not get to choose what we believe. Nor do we get to choose what we disbelieve or doubt, as C. S. Peirce famously observed.

But we can ask whatever questions we are able to conceive. This is not to say that we can ask any question we want as a live question. The experience of asking is part of the answer we receive. If we ask a question and feel no urgency in the asking and no longing to hear the answer, that is itself a kind of answer.

To use an optical analogy (a disgraced but still useful class of analogies): We can choose to look wherever we wish, but we cannot choose what we see. But if we do not see anything we want to see where we look, we can choose to keep looking, and this is the freedom that goes by the name philosophy. This suggests a further question: when can we stop looking? That is a complex moral problem too tangled to go into right now.

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