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What is suffering?
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Failure is humans' greatest fear

Failure is the greatest form of suffering because it is humans' greatest fear. It makes us suffer when we experience it because we feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also makes us suffer before we actually fail, because we spend all our life trying to avoid it.
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The Argument

Because of the way that humans have evolved, failure has become humans’ biggest fear. Before the development of civilizations, the human species was able to survive with our flight-or-fight instincts. We had a profound fear for the events that we associated with failure: being caught by a wild animal, not finding enough prey to feed ourselves, and venturing into the unknown and never returning. This fear that developed to help us survive has carried on to our world today. The perils of surviving in a dangerous savannah have been translated to the perils of surviving a toxic capitalist culture. Humans now profoundly fear being fired, not getting into their dream school or dream culture, being excluded from the “cool kids’ table,” and a variety of things that we have come to associate with modern failure. Our profound fear of these things then becomes a profound desire to avoid them.[1] Given this, people’s worst cases of suffering come from all the instances where we are forced to face our greatest fears because it is against our biological nature. It becomes a frustration of our desires, where we don’t get what we want and instead have to deal with our worst nightmare. Even in cases of moral atrocity, the worst of the suffering is not caused by the bombs exploding. The worst of the suffering is mental, such as when a parent sees their injured child and believes they have failed to protect them, when a soldier sees his town in flames and believes that he has failed to fight for his people, or when a group of people are stripped of their right to worship and they believe they will now fail their duty to God. Bad events become cases of suffering not just because of the event in and of itself, but because of our feelings about the event.

Counter arguments

Failure does not actually constitute anything in and of itself. Thousands of years ago, humans feared predators because they associated it with death. Today, humans fear getting fired because they associate it with financial instability. It is, therefore, not failure that makes people suffer; it is the things that we have failed. We suffer when a predator catches us because we believe we might die. We suffer when we lose our job because we believe it might lead to financial ruin. Suffering is therefore caused by the actual impacts of our actions, not just by the failure. Failure is too broad of a cause to be the root of suffering because anything can be called failure as long as humans believe it has made them suffer. The logic, therefore, becomes circular. When a town is bombed, what people think is just excuses and attempts to cover up what actually happened. The mother, for example, will think about parenting as a distraction for her real suffering: the death of her child. It is not her desires that have made her suffer, it is reality. Regardless of what she desired, the fact that her child is dead is suffering in and of itself. A sense of duty or an added layer to the mother’s affection with the child might be a reason why some mothers will suffer more than others, but the precondition for this suffering is still the death of the child. Physical events have to be the root cause of suffering because without the physical event occurring, there is no opportunity for anyone to even reflect on duty and regret their failures. Because all extra suffering stems from the actual event, that must be the meaning of suffering.



[P1] Humans' greatest fear is failure. [P1] Humans' greatest suffering comes when they are forced to experience and reconcile with their failure.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Humans fear failure because they fear the events that have caused us to fail. [Rejecting P2] Physical events are a precondition to all other sufferings, including failure.


This page was last edited on Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 03:16 UTC

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