In the Deer Park Discourses the Buddha famously observed that “life is suffering”–the first noble truth–which, when first heard by students in my world religion classes, strikes them as unnecessarily morose.
“Yeah, life sucks and all that … but it’s not all bad.”
At that point, I explain to them that the word used by the Buddha (dukkha), which often gets translated from the Pali as “suffering,” doesn’t just mean something like “unremitting agony.” It can mean that, of course; but it means much more.
Dukkha is better understood as a wheel in which the axle is off center, making the wheel wobble constantly as it turns. Dukkha is like a pebble in the shoe, which can cause great pain, but is more often experienced as a phenomenon that exists just beyond the horizon of awareness, always seeming to lurk at the edges of consciousness. It is, in short, the nagging sense that something is not right.
Suffering … not in the epic sense of the grand heroic struggle, but in the dislocative sense that life is not as it should be.