Meaning and Suffering
My experiences as a psychotherapist and spiritual counsellor have made it evident that we all seek to discern a deeper meaning in our human existence by connecting with a higher spiritual sense of life on personal and collective levels. Some universal questions and concerns invariably emerge for all of us. Who am I? What is my purpose? What fuels my quest for meaning in life? What makes life meaningful? What meaning do God and faith embody for me?
The late psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote in his autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” “the world into which we are born is brutal and cruel and at the same time one of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. If meaninglessness were absolutely preponderant, the meaningfulness of life would vanish to an increasing degree with each step in our development. But that is- or seems to me- not the case. Probably as in all metaphysical questions, both are true: Life is-or has- meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and will the battle.” This is a powerful message to consider as I grapple personally with the meaning of suffering in my life and the lives of those I encounter as a psychotherapist and simply as a fellow human being.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl gives testimony to the existential belief that life is filled with suffering and that the only way to survive is to find meaning in it. Despite the pain and torture endured in Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl refused to relinquish his humanity, love, hope, and courage. He chose, as Dostoyevsky had written, “to be worthy of suffering”. Frankl held that it is precisely man’s search for meaning that is a primary motivation of our existence and one that gives us a reason to live despite life’s tragedies. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. When you consider times of deepest pain, do you not also recall a time in which the existential ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ were most prevalent? It seems that suffering, in stripping away illusions, unlocks those questions concerned with larger meaning. Our heart can open to compassion and creative energy as we deepen self-knowledge and consciousness.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky believed that man’s road to salvation must be through suffering. In his writings, he presented suffering as always lighted by the spark of God. In his story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, the narrator falls asleep and dreams. In this dream, he is taken to Paradise — a mirror image of our earth, but the earth that knew no evil, no suffering. As he arrives, he realizes that he never ceased loving his old earth and did not want this parallel. He notices that there is no suffering on this “other earth.” He says that on the “old earth”, “we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want to suffer from loving. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don’t want, I won’t accept life on any other!”
Dostoyevsky suggests that good can’t exist without evil or suffering. And yet, it is this very reality that compels us to question God’s existence. Why would an omniscient, omnipotent being of Love allow this world to be a lonely, painful, frightening place for so many? Perhaps we are better served to focus our attention on making the world a less lonely, less painful, less frightening place for those whose faith has been shattered by evil, rather than proselytize abstractions regarding God’s agenda. One could sum it up by saying that irrespective of ‘why’ we suffer, it is clear that love is the remedy for suffering and that all suffering, eventually, after many detours, leads to love.
The Greek myth of Chiron the Centaur tells a story of unfair pain and suffering and addresses the illusion of a just cosmos. Chiron the centaur, half-divine and half-beast, was wise and gentle. He was a healer, a musician, astrologer, and scholar. One day, Chiron’s friend, the hero Herakles was battling a tribe of savage Centaurs. Chiron attempted to intervene and was accidentally struck with Herakles’ deadly arrow. The pain was excruciating, and because he was half-divine, he was destined to live with this suffering, for he could not die like other mortals. Zeus, however, out of compassion, eventually permitted Chiron release through death. Here we encounter the enigma of unfair suffering. We may be driven, out of bewilderment and impotence, to convince ourselves that the good are rewarded, and the bad punished, or that there is someone to blame. We search for that secret sin to explain our plight. The truth is, the only viable perspective in the face of unmerited pain is that of transformation through acceptance of what life is and reconciliation with our own mortal limits. Chiron’s immortal nature did not protect him from life any more so than our own aggrandized gifts can. We are all compromised by the reality of our duality and the arbitrary nature of life and the Universe. Like Chiron, we are all challenged to either choose the path of acceptance and compassion or succumb to our lower impulses.
Dr Jean Houston, Jungian psychoanalyst, in her brilliant essay “Pathos & Soul-Making”, states, “whether it be Krishna, or Christ, Buddha, the Great Goddess, or the individuated Guides of one’s own inner life, God may reach us through our affliction.” The betrayal shook Christ’s primal trust in God by Judas, Peter, and the disciples. Riveted to the cross, he cries out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He dies, gestates for 3 days, and is reborn. Revealed in this story is that trust and betrayal are inextricable. The fullest agony of betrayal is found within our most intimate bonds. We are then catapulted into the abyss of the unknown that we give way to complexity and consciousness. It is then that God enters. Here we encounter the renewal of humanity following death through crucifixion. In more prosaic terms, we face our vices and defects to resurrect our divine nature. Our descent regenerates us into our lower nature. While the proverbial fall can potentially take us towards collective consciousness, choosing and remaining on this path is often fraught with conflict and disillusionment. Unlike Job, whose faith remained steadfast during horrible adversity, our trust in life and God wavers during times of extreme adversity. Nevertheless, like Job, our task is to tap into humility and trust to be restored and renewed.
On a personal level, I often discover that the need for safety and the distortion that life should be easy and pleasurable interferes with embracing suffering as a transformative journey into maturation. Perhaps embracing suffering to discern the deeper meaning means confronting pain, cynicism, and despair, that we often flee this challenge. Nevertheless, only then can we truly awaken to mourning the loss of Eden and accept that there is no safety or rescue. Suffering is part of the flow of life that can be personally transformative if we are willing to give up what no longer serves us to move into the unknown. Through our suffering, we are humbled and reminded of our mortality and the reality that none of us is exempt from the difficulties of human life. Suffering is an archetypal human experience. Life is sometimes simply unfair. Nevertheless, the transformative effect of suffering suggests that our greatest pain may contain a deeper purpose. Perhaps that purpose resides in the function of human compassion. The word compassion comes from a Latin root that means to ‘suffer with’. Writer Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Everything in life that we really accept changes. So suffering must become Love. That is the mystery.”
Through this transcendence that Mansfield refers to, it is ultimately that we affirm ’yet I will love and hope’. And so it is.