What Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper Didn’t Ask

Many, many people have enjoyed watching the most recent conversation (there have been several others on camera) between CNN host Anderson Cooper and late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert. During this wide-ranging discussion, Cooper brings up the death of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and expresses appreciation for Colbert’s words of condolence.

Then things get theological. Cooper quotes Colbert (who, he later makes clear, is quoting J. R. R. Tolkien) asking, “What punishment of God’s are not gifts?” (Note: the quotation is widely mangled by theologically unaware tweeters: “what punishment of gods are not gifts” is one popular version that seriously misses the entire essence of the epigram.)

Colbert and Cooper quickly agree that suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition. Colbert then says that we can be grateful for even the events of our lives that we most wish hadn’t happened (he, for instance, endured the loss of his father and brothers in a plane crash when he was 11) because they can prepare us to connect well with others who, like everyone else, has experienced suffering.

Cooper grants the point, grateful as he is for Colbert’s sympathy upon his mother’s passing. But what neither of these perspicuous men happen to ask is this: Why is suffering, in fact, universal? Why does suffering mark the lives of the great and the small? And, finally, as one wit put it, why does no one get out of this life alive?

Colbert mentions Buddhism as teaching, as does his own Christian religion, that suffering is universal. But Buddhism offers an explanation for that suffering—at least, in pragmatic terms. Buddhism says that we suffer because we cannot get all that we want in life—our desires exceed our powers—and because we cannot keep even what we do get—as sickness, poverty, or at least death eventually claims it all, and all of us.

The Buddhist solution is not to conquer sickness, poverty, and death, however, but to stop caring about them, or anything else, so that we can escape the endless cycle of reincarnation into ever more suffering. Once we detach ourselves from desire, we detach ourselves from the world—and, thus, from suffering. Frankly, it’s a kind of suicide.

Still, Buddhism doesn’t account for the existence of sickness, poverty, and death. Why must these foes remain both unaccounted for and undefeatable?

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