By nature, we all avoid suffering, and suffering comes in so many varieties. We attend funerals and sob. We visit a loved one in a psychiatric unit and wonder how live ever got this bad. We consider animal cruelty and are appalled and saddened. A military dog dies of sorrow immediately after his soldier is killed in battle. A mother laments over her son’s heroin addiction. A son agonizes over this father’s imprisonment. A seventeen-year-old commits suicide, leaving a hole no one can ever fill.
But what of it all? By nature, we seek to avoid suffering in ourselves and in those we care about. Much suffering is unavoidable (such as many illnesses); but much of it is avoidable, but still afflicts many who become haunted by guilt, as in alcoholism. What can the sighs, groans, headaches, tears, and sleepless nights tell us about the meaning of life? Can philosophy find clues in these myriad maladies on how to live a truer and better life?
Trying to answer these questions is the quest of a lifetime, and, one hopes, an examined lifetime. I offer only prods to this end. Prompted my own and my wife’s suffering, due to her dementia, I have much pondered on the meaning of suffering philosophically and, of course, existentially (many of which can be found in my book Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness–A Philosopher’s Lament). I will briefly compare two views of suffering, that of atheistic existentialism and of historic Christianity.
Atheistic Existentialism and Suffering
I thought that atheistic existentialism had passed from the intellectual scene by the mid-1980s, having been eclipsed by New Age thought and postmodernism. But its demise was, like Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated. Gary Cox has labored to rehabilitate existentialism (particularly Jean-Paul Sartre) through a number of short, snappy books such as How to be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess, a longer biography of Sartre. We even find The Dummies Guide to Existentialism.
"Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned." - Jean-Paul Sarte
Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre and his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, argue that life in itself has no meaning because the universe is uncreated and undesigned. Humans turn up and must define themselves, living without a “heaven of ideas” or the divine Amen. As Sartre famously wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions, “Existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasized the necessity of free choice to make an authentic life. De Beauvoir stressed the “ethics of ambiguity,” the right and the meaningful is not spelled out anywhere. We interpret life as we will—with no Hermes at our side. Heidegger claims that we are “thrown” into existence, suffering the anxiety of intrinsic alienation, and must experience “being unto death.”
For these thinkers (despite their differences), suffering is intrinsic to human being. For Sartre, we are “condemned to be free” and, as he says in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” There is no objective meaning to suffering, but only our subjective meaning in suffering. While Camus denied being an existentialist (as did the later Heidegger), he, like Sartre, et al, found meaning only in the absurd revolt against meaninglessness. Hence his book, The Rebel. The hero of Camus’s The Plague fights against the mysterious plague that ravages his town, knowing his task is futile. Somehow, amidst the ruins, a kind of absurd meaning is found. But that meaning does not extend beyond the individual. No one can align herself with a broader meaning of suffering in relation to a greater good or a hidden purpose that transcends the merely human and terrestrial. To use Kierkegaard’s term, “the audit of eternity” is lacking.
To endure such suffering, according to Existentialism, is simply our lot. We should not resign ourselves to it passively, but create meaning in the midst of it. As Sartre emphasizes, we have “no excuse” for leaving our post by blaming our biology or upbringing. That would be “bad faith,” not authentic freedom. Suffering, for Sartre, is part of the human condition of being who are always in process, but without an objective end or objective meaning to our becoming. All the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and there is no Atlas to help us.
Going further, Sartre says that man is “the desire to be God.” We yearn to be what we are without the instability that freedom brings, but we also yearn to be totally unconstrained and free to do as we will. But, says Sartre, this is impossible for a finite being qua finite being, and there is no infinite being (God) to synthesize this freedom and stability. Because of all this, man is “forlorn.”
Christianity and Suffering
Suffering is not the starting point for the Christian worldview, but, nevertheless, it throbs in its philosophical marrow. Blood is shed everywhere, but that blood is not without a voice. Humans did not just appear without forethought or purpose, but are integral to a divine plan. But this plan is fully made known—and often largely obscured—to erring mortals.
For the ancient Hebrews and Christians, death and suffering are rooted in our responsibility to God and others. The world and its finite stewards were created good, but that original felicity did not last. A rift occurred between Creator and created such that those who bear God’s image also bear God’s displeasure. In Christian terminology, this is called the fall.
As Pascal wrote in Pensées, man “could not bear so great a glory without falling into pride.” In The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, Soren Kierkegaard considers the suffering of anxiety in explicitly Christian terms.
Things go wrong; blood is shed; tears are many. Cain slays his brother Abel out of his jealousy. His blood cries out from the ground for justice. There are wars and rumors of wars. Women and men waste their lives. Perhaps no other passage in the Hebrew Bible sums up our sorry condition better than the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, which I quote in the King James Version:
I returned, and saw under the sun,
that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all (chapter 9, verse 11).
The practice and skill of lament is how the biblical authors and the Jewish and Christian traditions come to terms with suffering. This world is broken and that cannot be hidden. Humans ought to recognize the losses and injustices of life, and make that know to heaven. This includes inexplicable suffering, lamenting over one’s moral failings, and paying the heavy prices of suffering for one’s religious convictions. Perhaps sixty of the one hundred and fifty Psalms fit in the genre of lament. The writers cry out to God and unburden themselves in their sorrows. But these are prayers, not the voicings of unheeded anguish. The reader finds anger, impatience, and even despair in these poems. They cover the gamut of sorrow, all brought before God. Man is not a useless passion. His passionate suffering and grief may be brought before God who is there and who hears him.
Psalm twenty-two was on the lips of Jesus as he was crucified before the audience of his fellow Jews and his Roman executioners: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This wail of dejection was also a prayer. Christians affirm that somehow this suffering heals the rift between God and man. Suffering was never more real than here, but suffering is not the final word, since these were not Christ’s final words.
A short essay cannot adjudicate between the Existentialism and Christian account of the meaning of suffering. I offer it simply to illuminate the landscape of possibilities under the sun.