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Life Isn't about Increasing Happiness and Decreasing Suffering

August 6, 2020 | by Emuna Braverman

Happiness and suffering are not mutually exclusive.

Our children are our biggest teachers. From them we learn to appreciate and interact with all types of personalities and minds, the myriad different combinations of character traits possible and how to navigate those potentially treacherous waters.

One of the most important lessons we learn from our children, I think is compassion – for the challenges of others, for those who are different from us, for the rocky road that life may be to some, for the varying abilities to handle life’s vicissitudes.

I thought of all this when I read an excerpt from Heather Lanier’s new book, Raising a Rare Girl: A Memoir, about her daughter with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome (mother and daughter are in the photo above). As all parents, and particularly the parents of children with dramatic needs, there can be a lot of judgment out there. Perhaps the worst of all is the tweet by the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. In his eyes, it was immoral for a woman to knowingly give birth to a Down syndrome child because “disabilities decrease happiness and increase suffering.”

I’m not going to comment on his cruelty and callousness. I’m not even going to address how off he is about the value of each individual life – what we can learn from each human being, their individual path to growth and so on.

I’m only focused on Dawkins’ core erroneous assumption – that somehow life is about increasing happiness and decreasing suffering. This is definitely NOT the Jewish position. In the first place, happiness and suffering are not mutually exclusive. Growth may come through suffering and happiness may be a byproduct of that growth. We can’t avoid suffering, no matter how hard we try. We learn through suffering. We discover our latent potential through suffering.

Although we wouldn’t necessarily choose it, we are often grateful for the way in which those painful or challenging experiences shape the people we become. (Read Jodi Samuel's moving article.)

Secondly, the goal of life is not happiness (or its pursuit). A life well-lived, a life of caring for others, of connecting to God and community often leads to a feeling of happiness but that is never the end in and of itself. A life spent trying to increase happiness and avoid suffering is often an empty life, devoid of the meaning and relationships that make life so precious – and simultaneously so challenging!

Ms. Lanier comes to this recognition through her experiences raising her unique daughter and expresses it more beautifully and articulately than me. She credits her daughter with giving her the gift of this understanding and the perfect rebuttal for Dawkins.

She writes, “A better life isn’t one that steers clear of the most pain managing to arrive at the end with the eulogy, He had it easy, or She was the least scathed person I know. This belief in the virtue of the 'happy' and suffering-free life sterilizes and shrinks us minimizing what ma us most beautifully human.”

I read this on a day when I was feeling a little (okay a lot!) overwhelmed by all the “opportunities for growth” in my life and the lives of those I love, by the seeming increase in suffering (although not obviously corresponding decrease in happiness!) and it was a welcome reminder to refocus my concentration on the growth available and not the pain endured or effort required. This story of struggle didn’t depress me; it lifted my spirits as I appreciated the love and caring and joy that human beings are capable of discovering and sharing.

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