I recently bought a tee-shirt bearing one of my favorite quotes from the movie, The Princess Bride. The shirt reads, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
This quote got me thinking, specifically about its first sentence. Obviously, I bought the shirt because its message resonated with me, even if only as an expression of dark humor. But really, on a deep, objective level, is it accurate? I concluded that, depending on how one defines “pain,” as well as how generous one is toward poetic hyperbole, the quote expresses a useful insight into the nature of all living beings that are capable of action.
Every living creature (at least everyone with a nervous system) operates via a few basic drives: the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. What gives pleasure can vary greatly from species to species, and even from individual to individual, but pain, at its root, has a greater universality. Physical pain occurs, primarily, in response to damage, or threatened damage, to an organism. One could also call fear, that drive to avoid danger, a form of pain; if I’m going to do that, though, I should clarify my definition of the word.
When I speak here of pain, I’m not just talking about simple pain, like an aching back, a bullet wound, or whatever similar intense sensation might be brought about by an injury to the physical body. Pain, as I am using it, could be considered synonymous with the term “suffering,” as most people use it. In that sense, fear is a kind of pain, an unpleasant sensation that impels us to action. This is the root of a seemingly terrible trap of life.
The Buddha is reputed to have said that all suffering is born of desire (though I’ve heard that the word dukkha, which is usually translated as “suffering” might more accurately be translated as “unsatisfactoriness”). But of course, all action is born of desire at some level. No one moves unless some “force” impels him or her, and mere abstract desire rarely seems adequate. We can fantasize about great wealth, about unlimited sexual indulgences, about the taste of an ice-cream we used to eat as a child, but these “desires” don’t really cause us to act. On the other hand, if the thought of what we desire arouses unpleasant sensation, a pain if you will, associated with the lack of that desired thing, then we will be motivated to seek satisfaction.
For good, sound, biological reasons, pain—in the broad definition I’m using—is a more powerful motivator than pleasure. We see how essential it is when we observe those rare cases of people who are congenitally insensitive to many forms of physical pain. They don’t tend to live long. Similarly, creatures born without a sense of fear are likely to be culled from the gene pool by predation or accident. In a situation of natural selection—with organisms shaped by their ability to survive long enough to reproduce as much as they can—nature will select very strongly for the tendency to fear danger and to be aroused to action by pain.
Of course, seeking pleasure, in its various forms, is also selectively advantageous. Someone who derives no joy from food, from water, or from sex, is not a good candidate for survival. But it is the seeking of those pleasures that is most powerful, not their achievement. Pleasure—for good, sound, biological reasons—tends to be fleeting. As Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Homo Deus, a squirrel that experiences immense and never-fading satisfaction and joy after eating a single nut is a squirrel that will live a blissful but very short life.
Pleasures reward us for achieving what are—at least originally—biologically salient ends, but it is the fading of that pleasure, and the ache associated with its lack, that drives us to seek it again. All our satisfactions are transient and…well, unsatisfying, because if we were satisfied for long, we would simply become quiescent.
Pain, suffering, and fear get us moving and tend to keep us moving until we can at least mitigate them if not escape them. Unfortunately, biology hasn’t provided us with the means to escape all pains, and those tools we have that most powerfully fight pain at all levels—the opiates come most readily to mind—don’t tend to bring out the best in us. A combination of opiates and benzodiazepines powerfully blunts our sensations of pain and fear, while also giving us a jolt in the reward centers of our brains, but people under their combined influence are rarely seen to do great or even good deeds. Sometimes they die outright, with even their drive to breathe blunted into nothingness. Is this the ultimate instantiation of the “freedom from desire” touted by the Buddha as a state of enlightenment, releasing one from the supposed cycle of rebirth and delivering one, finally, into the nirvana of nonexistence? It can certainly accomplish this at the level of the individual life.
Even if we were to design an artificial intelligence, not subject to the rules of biological natural selection, we would need to give it some utility function, some goal and motivation…a drive, in other words, analogous our drive to survive and reproduce. Otherwise, the AI would take no action at all. An inability to achieve that goal, the frustration of that drive, could be considered a form of suffering, though we don’t know what, if any, subjective experience that might entail.
Alas, nature hasn’t built us to be perfect subjects of pain and fear. Both pain and fear can become debilitating when they cannot be assuaged. Those with chronic pain, or with a chronic anxiety syndrome—and they often go together, more’s the pity—know the horror of suffering that cannot be relieved. Often, their outcome is despair, depression, and a learned helplessness that nevertheless doesn’t free them from suffering. Giving up hope, giving up desire—in this sense at least—doesn’t seem to lead to freedom from dukkha. But that’s because nature hasn’t selected us to be able to turn off our pain and fear programs—again, for good, sound, biological reasons.
In this, one can understand how the Buddha might have concluded that the goal of spiritual learning was to escape from the cycle of life.
We often hear the metaphor of motivation using both the carrot the stick—the avoidance of punishment combined with the desire for reward. But the carrot is only a reward because of another, more nebulous but no less real “stick,” which is the pain of hunger—or the fear of it, the drive to avoid it, that is built into every organism that eats. If eating a carrot were merely pleasurable, but a lack of food unimportant and not compelling, of no significance or consequence, then you might eat the carrot if someone handed it to you, but you would hardly feel impelled to try to reach such a vegetable dangled out of reach in front of your nose.
It’s probably an oversimplification—born of the desire to turn a catchy phrase—to say literally that “life is pain.” Clearly there is more to life than pain, or else there could be no argument for anything but mass-suicide. But pain really is probably not just a common fact of life, but one of its central, primary features, especially when one recognizes that the fear of pain, and that suffering the lack of one’s possible pleasures, each is a kind of pain in and of itself.
A cat that walks on a hot stove once may never walk on either a hot or cold stove in the future…but a cat that feels neither pain from the heat nor the fear of that pain is liable to burn itself time and again, and it is unlikely to outcompete its fellows for survival and reproduction. Suffering, and the ability to suffer, are inescapable, crucial parts of life.
Whether this is a good thing, or if it makes life not worth living, is another question entirely.