The structure of suffering

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is a structure to suffering – it is not a relatively simple experience like rage but a multi-faceted one like love. Describing it leads to paradox and confusion – like explaining how fevers make us both hot and cold. While no one needs to be told that suffering is painful and that no one would choose it, it has other elements too, e.g.:

1.) Numinous insight. The one who suffers is seen as speaking with authority, even prophetically.  It’s not mere politeness that keeps us from contradicting or arguing with him, but a sense that he’s in a peculiar position to understand something. The examples here are almost too numerous for any list to do justice to: the holocaust narratives of Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel; the suffering speaker of the 21st Psalm; Job; St. Therese composing her autobiography while dying of tuberculosis; the forcefulness of The Band Played Waltzing Matildaand others too obvious to mention. This power is also abused: perverse victimization, and tales that purport to show how suffering shows the true emptiness of the self (say in Lucretius or Thucydides)

2.) A kind of return to infancy. Suffering makes everyone want to mother you. You are pitied, doted on, taken far more seriously than you very would be taken in normal circumstances.

3.) A decision of meaning. Suffering demands some answer to whether this is meaningful or pointless. Is this happening because the universe is indifferent to us, or because we are being called to transform its essential meaninglessness by a some sort of response? This connects to (1) – suffering demands a judgment on life, one that we see ourselves in some position to respond to. It makes sense that we would reach for either carnal or spiritual extremes in the face of the question.

4.) The establishment of sacred text. One very good practical account of a sacred text than one that you can quote from memory in the face of suffering. I love Plato, and in the cool reflection or normal life he is my beau ideal of mystical insight, but one doesn’t find himself quoting Plato in the Valley of death.

5.) A sense of God the Father. The God of the philosophers has minimal value in the face of suffering. One is either loved or abandoned by the Father – Christ’s Eloi might indicate that the love and abandonment are experienced together.

1 Comment

  1. David Pulliam said,

    October 24, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you for your post. Regarding your fifth point, I suggest you look at Boethius’ work Consolation of Philosophy where you see philosophy being a comforter to one who went through great suffering.


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