Oscar Wilde once wrote the following:
“Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.”
What does it mean to suffer?
Various points in history have discreetly answered this question in forms. Perhaps in a pre-Christian era, suffering may have been like the weather. Coming and going with various unpredictable patterns, yet forming shades and gradations that could be likened to seasons.
I like this quote by Oscar Wilde because it suggests to me the idea of surrendering.
If Christ and then by extension, other saintly figures (from all walks of religion) had suffered for us, then all we had to do was surrender and we were saved.
A Very (Un)Academic History of Suffering
My observation has been that suffering has always been underpinned by its purpose. We accept suffering, and infact bring it upon ourselves because we believe that at the end awaits redemption.
The crucifixion has always functioned as a grand metaphor — because it circumscribes the movement of that suffering. Where is it headed? How long does suffering last? And the most important question — Why?
One of the most positive and transformative parts of religion, which we don’t often talk about or give credit for, is that the suffering of a revered figure can function symbolically — people can identify with their chosen saint or role model and through a kind of psychic displacement, are able to reframe suffering entirely.
On the other hand, as we were launched into modernity through the first and second world wars, the sheer scale of brutality and destruction posed a very difficult problem for the question of suffering’s purpose.
Before chemical weapons, bombing runs or the atomic bomb — we could always localise the pain to specific times or places.
Our pains as private individuals going through private suffering, or broadly speaking, the trials of the poor and the sick — were always contextualised.
Charity and medicine existed to help the poor and the sick — their suffering was a moral clarion to wake us up to our own ills.
Private suffering always took place in the context of a moral struggle — we gained knowledge that we couldn’t have accessed otherwise.
But what happens if the suffering doesn’t stop? What if millions of people die in an instant? What if people are persecuted from when they are born, to their old age, for simply being the wrong person in the wrong place, at the wrong time?
A classic philosophical question rears its head that haunts the background of many pieces of art, film and literature:
Why does God (or any other force) allow such suffering to happen in the first place?
Suffering With No Purpose
I don’t think the scope of this piece of writing allows me to go into the idea of God and suffering in that much detail. However, I do want to share my thoughts in a broader sense.
I think the crucial thing to understand is that, if we bring on the suffering ourselves, or that the nature of the suffering is that there is some kind of redemption or learning that happens at the end — then it is a purposed suffering.
Anyone who has had a child vaccinated or sat in traffic or any situation that requires highly extended amounts of patience — but always limited to a time frame — ultimately are able to endure that suffering because they understand the purpose of it all.
Our perspective is the only thing that changes a claustrophobic tunnel into the long drive home.
But what about the opposite end of the spectrum? What about unpurposed suffering?
By which I mean the suffering of children who die young from diseases, or of people who are kept in torment and suffering for their whole lives underneath an oppressive regime? Or those that die at the hands of someone else?
There are only a few ways out of it:
- The people whose suffering that we don’t understand is because we ourselves are imperfect, and therefore always have incomplete knowledge. In short: There is a reason, but we just don’t know why.
- The suffering happens because the world is a cruel place — hierarchy dictates most of the natural world — and therefore suffering is like a chaotic, swirling atom which hits some people and passes through others for no reason other than its random nature. It just happens.
- The suffering occurs because people are being punished for things they had done before, or that an afterlife exists where they will be recompensed and therefore the equation becomes balanced.
- Suffering happens because of dictators and the power-hungry, and the human price is being paid because of our own inaction and complacency.
Perhaps what terrifies us the most is the idea that suffering happens for no reason at all. Or, that we are in no position to stop it from happening at all, which is the same thing.
Suffering as Taboo
One thing I got from studying literature is how suffering is so closely tied to religion and ritual.
The idea of tragedy — an overwhelming sadness that leads to transformative knowledge or “catharsis” goes back thousands of years.
While it’s difficult to understand the minutae of people’s private lives, what the periods of English Literature show us (if they are related to the mood of the people at the time) is that tragedy, or suffering, was a noble thing.
Suffering is the only way you acquire the highest kinds of knowledge — we see this time and time again in so many plays and books that it becomes apparent about the weight and even, appreciation that people had when they underwent suffering. It meant that they were growing.
Yet if we move away from history for the moment and ground ourselves in the present, we see so many manifestations of suffering and how that suffering is dealt with.
Take for example, the issue of homelessness. Every time we see a homeless person, or when they beg, we withold resources even if we have them.
What do we tell ourselves when we do this?
Is it that, every homeless person landed in that situation by their own hand?
While that might be the case for some, does it still justify how we treat them?
I would like to suggest a more disturbing idea.
We “un-see” the homeless because what happens when we look is a suffering that is too great to process in the mind. We see suffering that has no end in sight, no purpose. A waste of life in the literal sense.
And our first instinct is to jump to the practical.
“They did it to themselves. They should stop taking drugs and get a job.”
The homeless and/or addicts is the microcosm-smoking-gun that shows how we have made suffering a visual and symbolic taboo.
And this has grave complications for our private lives.
What Is Individual Suffering? [Freestyle]
Someone you love is crying uncontrollably when you meet them.
What’s your instinct?
“What’s wrong?” or “What’s happened?”
You want to fix it. You want the crying to stop. You want everything to go back to the way it was before you see them. Suddenly you see them in a new light.
Our first step to dealing with suffering is a marriage between nostalgia and denial.
Our response, as a society that is obsessed with commodities and resources, is to compartmentalise the issue.
Isolate the cause. Establish the purpose. Plot the solution.
Sometimes I see this response in myself and others. This response that has control and power at its heart — how do we make it stop? How do I bring this storm under my control?
But perhaps we have had it wrong the whole time in this modern era.
In a world of buttons, options and endless choices — it becomes easy to see why problem-fixing is our default reaction to most uncomfortable situations.
But it’s not the situation or the person that causes the point of tension — it’s that we’re so hellbent on power in our attempts to control the situation, that we forget to surrender.
We’re so programmed to be happy and smiling in front of everyone that, like the homeless, we’ve made suffering into a sin.
We “un-see” our own suffering.
We have so much to buy and consume, why is suffering a thing?
If it’s not problem-fixing, then it’s pathology that comes next in our thirst for control.
It’s because of the past, or that we didn’t go to the gym. Or that we became our parents, or a past-relationship is messing with us. Or that we have a brain-chemical imbalance that becomes a psychiatric matter.
While of course, serious situations of illness warrant a serious response, we are all too cavalier in imposing our control-matrix into suffering because we are socialised to be outwardly happy to everyone, all of the time.
What if the key was, as the people before us did, understand that suffering is a necessary and even beautiful part of life?
Dare I say the beauty in our own individual sufferings lies in the way that we must humble ourselves?
The only world where happiness becomes morally superior to sadness is a world where the ego calls all the shots.
In the cases where the suffering is self-imposed, then there is a lesson to be learnt about the consequences of our actions.
Yet in the cases where our suffering is caused by something outside of our control, the lesson is to learn how surrendering to humility can be transformative.
Because we often forget how heavy a responsibility it is to be able to make things happen.
If we unmake things happen — and accept that we are not always in control….then I think there is some healing to that.
We don’t have to take responsibility for every tiny little thing that happens to us — even though this flashy world of screens and coins and rewards teaches us an instant-feedback loop for reality itself.
Sometimes…you just need to accept that suffering is one of the colours that describes your life — and it’s nothing to be ashamed about.