I finished Larry Brilliant’s autobiography today, and enjoyed it immensely. If you read his book, you know what I mean and can skip the remainder of this paragraph. If you haven’t read this, I recommend it highly. His life truly begins as he joins the love of his life in pursuit of the meaning of life. Germinating at the feet of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, nourished by the Summer of Love and hardened by the abuses of that era, Larry becomes a radical doctor helping those no matter who they are. His soul-mate decides their shared paths go through India, and to India they go in pursuit of enlightenment. Guru Maharaji determines that Larry’s dharma lies in helping others, and that his karma yoga is through work. The ultimate prize is eliminating killer smallpox, a disease that killed over half a billion people in the 20th century alone. That’s more than all the wars and famines and tragedies all put together. The adventures, the successes, and the failures are enjoyable told and hold many lessons.
Larry asks the ultimate question that every compassionate soul has asked through the ages: Why does suffering exist? He typically pondered this while holding the body of a dead child. I am going to answer this question in terms that rely on what we know of biology and ecosystems and philosophy. I’m going to keep it as short as possible, so that much detail may be lacking. And I’m going to answer it in such a way so that it addresses a related question: What is the best way to relieve suffering in the world in the long term? Most recently, Jeff Bezos has asked this question, inviting his twitter followers to submit their suggestions as to how he focuses his charity.
However, neither Larry Brilliant or Jeff Bezos, or even most people are going to like the answer here. For the truth is raw and uncompromising, much as Mother Nature shows Herself to be when in her full glory. We tend to forget that to Mother Nature, all forms of life and death and joy and suffering, are all aspects of a single existence.
Moreover, when you look closely at the holiest of all holy texts in every religion, you see that they agree on that fundamental truth. Life and death, joy and suffering, are all part of the same thing. You can’t have one without the other. A Tibetan monk explains to Larry, when he asks the question yet again, that suffering will always be part of the human condition as long as ignorance and obsession exist. In the same scene, Larry is blessed for the simple fact that he is fighting a great scourge of humanity, and to alleviate any suffering is an act to strive for.
This is not an argument against charity, but an answer to the question “How can I be most charitable?” At the same time, I hope to explain why suffering exists in any form, and why our best charitable efforts may in fact not appear to be charity.
Suffering may come from many sources, from outside ourselves, but also within. We generally agree that some suffering is good for the soul, for it makes us tougher, makes us more willing to take risks. But when is suffering too much? Who is to decide?
Nature decides, using the most fundamental rules possible: life and death. When she unleashed smallpox upon humanity, a third of its victims would die a gruesome and painful death. Another third would be permanently handicapped. The remaining third? Survivors.
Now that we have eliminated smallpox, we will not know what made those survivors different from the rest. What kind of world would this be if smallpox still existed? Would it be a better world? We simply don’t know.
And that’s the point. For those of you who are spiritual and wish to second guess God, you can feel angry about the death of an innocent baby to such a gruesome disease. But if God is playing the game for all of humanity, and not only that one baby or her family, then who are we to be critical?
Suffering exists, and we must learn from it. As long as ignorance exists there will be suffering. Such is the wheel of life. No matter what your religion or how you talk to your God, fundamentally they all say the same thing. Sub ek, all one.
Which brings us to the final point, how then do we best spend our precious charitable resources? If you are moved to help someone read a book, buy groceries, or weed their garden, then you should. However, if you have access to billions more resources, then consider this. You should be pushing mankind further, higher, faster. For Jeff Bezos, every last bit of his energy should be directed to making his dream of colonizing space a reality. Spending even a few moments on any other endeavor may make him more popular, but only increases the risk of getting humanity off the ground.
Improving humanity means greater knowledge, and that automatically means less suffering. It’s not the same thing as putting silver into a beggar’s hand, but it is far more lasting.
May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.