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The Cycles of Life

by Takehiko Inoue from Vagabond

Sometimes, I don’t understand why things must be difficult. What I mean is that everywhere we look, we see suffering. Whether it be on the street or in our own families, we see people struggling. Struggle is the stain of life. It is something that everyone must go through no matter how much or how little you have. Everyone struggles differently and for different reasons, but nonetheless, we all struggle.

I think the Buddhists summarized it best. Suffering is eternal, yet one can find freedom. The escape from the cycle of suffering is something everyone is aiming for one way or another. The food we eat makes us forget about our hunger, the music we listen to makes us forget about our worries, the friends we talk to make us forget about our loneliness, yet no matter what one does, one will always return to the state of suffering. Human nature is such.

It seems hopeless. We struggle day in and day out, hoping that one day things will get better, yet we can never get rid of that void in ourselves. That longing, that loss, that missing piece is forever with us. This is the ultimate pain that cannot be separated from the soul. This is what causes unrest within the heart and fear within the body. It's as if a fire is set loose in our spirit, and all we can do is try our best to maintain its flames. On some occasions, the fire is brighter than the sun. It consumes and drags everything in its sight into its blistering heat. Other times, it is merely a flicker in the midst of a snow storm. It is meek and quiet. It is motionless and cold, yet no matter the circumstances, the fire never goes out.

The simplicity of everything is sometimes obscured and obfuscated by our attempts at attaining joy. The simple fact is one cannot be happy forever. However, that need not be a tragedy in the conventional sense. Focusing purely on attaining happiness for the longest period of time distracts us from the true experiences of life. We cannot cherry pick good and bad experiences. Rather, we must learn to live with the good and the bad.

I remember hearing a quote that goes something like this, “When you see only happiness, you completely miss the point.” I think this rings especially true in the world we live in today. With more and more sources of entertainment, love, and stimulus, the world today seems dead set on finding happiness. However, I believe that this is misguided and impractical. Just as God promises us eternal happiness in heaven, demanding eternal happiness be present on earth is just inane. In fact, the happiness we are given is a small taste of what is to come.

Nevertheless, joy is real. We experience it, and we know it to be true. Nothing else needs to be said to prove its existence. Doesn’t that mean we should all look for it with all our heart? Well, yes and no. Happiness is merely a manifestation of the good the world could be. Chasing after such goodness is beneficial to the self and to society. It means embodying the love and kindness the world could be. In this sense, finding happiness is a proactive process of entwining one’s will with that of others.

However, happiness for the individual is different. For one, individuals rarely feel happy all the time. Instead, happiness is often seasonal. I think Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is an interesting tool we can use to examine this phenomenon. When a hero begins his journey, he is no hero. He has done nothing and knows nothing, yet through fate or through will, he finds himself entering into a world far beyond his imagination. He cannot comprehend much, however, he must learn quickly lest he lose his way and fall into death. He must face dragons, so he must also grow stronger. He then either usurps the tyrant and kills the dragon or dies in the process. However, the hero must still journey back home. That journey back home is crucial because it is a reminder that finality is an illusion. Once the hero wins, he must once again become normal. All change turns back into the status quo.

A cynical mindset may consider our human suffering as merely a result of biological devices. The hedonistic treadmill at work, forever keeping us miserable. However, I like to believe this cycle of life is quite beautiful. Rather than reaching a final destination of happiness, the hero returns changed for better or for worse. In the context of life, the hero we wish to become will hopefully change us for the better. Aristotle’s eudaimonia describes a fullness of life where one finds joy. It is more than just the emotion or feeling of rush one experiences with happiness. Rather, it is a more permanent and personal development that enables one to experience a more whole existence.

The hardest part about life is that it keeps going. No matter what finality we may assign to events in our lives, things just go on and on. The world doesn’t stop spinning. Time’s arrow merely marches forward. The world harbors no grudge or remorse. This means all emotions are temporary, for good and bad. While happiness does not last forever, pain does not last forever either. The only way to leave the suffering we hold on to is by accepting the full experience of life. Long and hard winters will only produce brighter and warmer springs.

1 Peter 5:10

“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”


Books Referenced

[1] Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

[2] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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