Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Meanings of Suffering

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Meanings of Suffering

Article excerpt

Western thinkers have usually falsified our experience of suffering in trying to make sense of it. In a postmodern age, their accounts seem implausible. We need a way of making sense of suffering while admitting its horror.

Suffering is one of the most profound and disturbing of human experiences. The very word suffering has a resonance that relates to our sense of life's meaning and the threat suffering poses to our hopes of happiness. It does not refer just to maladies, pains, and difficulties with which we can and should cope. It involves crises and threats that constitute a degradation or alienation of our being.[1] It is the spiritual dimension of our existence or the "contemplative" aspect of our being, to use Aristotle's term, not only the bodily aspects of our selves, that is implicated in suffering. Suffering is a spiritual phenomenon, an event that strikes at the faith we can have in life. The role of suffering in our lives is contested at the level of discourse at which cultural meanings and visions of human life are negotiated.

In evaluating its role, the central question is whether suffering is a good thing or a bad thing. This may seem an odd question to pose; it may seem obvious that suffering is intrinsically bad. Given the ineliminability of suffering from our lives, however, a central project of human thought is to make it bearable or acceptable, and one of the most common ways of doing this is to show it to be good in some way. If suffering were seen as a positive event or force in our lives, we would be better able to endure it. Accordingly, our cultural tradition contains many attempts to make suffering positive.[2] Simultaneously, there are those who think such attempts a species of bad faith and who argue that, if we are to be authentic in the face of it, suffering must always be considered negative. This paper explores a few of the attempts in the Western tradition to give suffering meaning and then asks whether an authentic acceptance of suffering as something inherently negative, destructive, and adverse to human happiness can still be acceptable.

Ancient Conceptions: Suffering and the World

From the very earliest of times in the West, suffering has been associated with the concept of justice. What the spiritual or contemplative functions of our thinking seek is a coherent and totalizing world view in which everything has its place and nothing disturbs the order. Within such a divinely decreed cosmos, suffering would result either from a human violation of the supernatural order or a divine response to such a violation.

Perhaps the most primeval and naive reaction to suffering is to think of it as punishment. Cultures and religions around the world abound with examples of the belief that suffering is a punishment exacted by the gods. But this is already an anthropomorphic rendering of a more primitive idea: namely, that, despite its ubiquity, suffering is something that should not happen. It is something that is inherently negative. It is a departure from how things should be. But why? Clearly, it is contrary to what the victim or victims of the suffering would want. But it would be hubris to suppose that the mere wishes of individuals could establish the axiological status of suffering. The value status of everything, including suffering, must arise from an order of reality greater than that of puny human individuals or peoples. It must arise from the gods. Suffering must be seen as part of the divine order, and the most obvious explanation in a universe that contains gods who have emotions and desires like human beings is that suffering is sent by the gods to punish human beings for deeds that displease the gods. In this way suffering becomes part of the divine order despite its apparent evil and acquires an explanation of why it is, after all, to be borne with equanimity.

The genius of ancient Greek thought was to have transcended the anthropomorphic gods and replaced them with more abstract concepts. …

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