Is suffering a legitimate form of human expression?
I heard some disturbing news yesterday. A member of my family, a cousin, was the victim of unprovoked violence and through this assault he was seriously hurt.
Coincidently (as if there is such a thing) I also attended the funeral service of a woman yesterday, who died at a young age after suffering terribly from cancer for the last few years.
A few months ago I wrote the following email to my cousin who was the victim of the recent assault. I publish it in its original form, so I hope you will forgive a reference early in the email that is un-contextualised.
My cousin is a devout Maronite Catholic.
Hi (name withheld)
I found our recent email discussion deeply moving and thought provoking, specifically with respect to the issue of suffering. And what follows is an attempt to make sense, more for myself than anyone else, of this profound issue.
To sum up, very briefly, how we arrived at this point:
- In the discussion of how to enter into a dialogue , rather than Lacan’s parallel monologue you suggested that both in prayer, as well as in discussion with your wife, you found the most significant way to ensure a dialogue was to remove your ‘ego’ from the dialogue.
- This resulted in two questions from my side:
- Who it was that entered into the dialogue if not your ego? This has remained unanswered to date.
- I suggested that your prayer may be seen as an embrace of suffering. This you did answer by saying that indeed it was.
What does it mean to actively embrace suffering?
This answer (that your faith was an embrace of suffering), as you know by now, is one which has really shocked me. And I am obliged to ask myself what it was about this that I found so emotive, why am I reacting as strongly as I am. Well clearly, as you well know, this is an indication that an unconscious complex has been triggered. And this email is an attempt to make sense of my reaction and my thoughts about this issue.
On some reflection I really don’t know why I am so surprised by your explicitness on this point, that the true Catholic embraces suffering. I mean I always knew this implicitly anyway that being a Christian, never mind a Catholic, was, in part, a legitimising of suffering. I suppose there were two things about your saying that I didn’t see coming:
- I implicitly assumed this to be an antiquated belief and thought that the modern Catholic had somehow sterilised the Cannon to remove this view. Something like the way Hell and Brimstone seems to have become something far milder in the last few decades.
- Your view which, if I have understood correctly (I’m still not entirely sure), goes further. It is not just a legitimising of suffering but the deification of suffering: a pursuit of Crucifixion.
Anyway accepting that this is your, and I assume many other Catholics, position, let’s move on to the heart of the matter.
Having lived long enough to experience my share of suffering, and seeing the suffering of so many others around me, I must concede that the legitimisation of this suffering is not without appeal. It effectively inverts, conceptually at least (and I belong to the school of thought that believes that reality itself is purely a conceptual matrix, meaning that for me there is nothing greater than a concept), something which un-symbolised debases our dignity. And once symbolised, in this unique Christian way, suffering is not only legitimised but made transcendent, thus restoring man’s dignity. And allowing meaning to emerge from a reality which was previously meaningless or absurd as Camus puts it.
However I think that this doctrine, of the legitimisation of suffering, is really best understood in terms of the endurance of unavoidable suffering. The active pursuit of martyrdom or let’s say the deification of suffering so that it is sought out, rather than avoided, takes things to a different level. It is what a rationalist would see as not only irrational but, as you said, psychotic. This for me starts to approach the same level of fanaticism as the Islamic Martyrs and their actions in support of their faith.
And this is where things become really scary. This is the total immersion in faith, a place where reason and common sense (an admittedly nebulous term but I trust you know what it is I mean) no longer hold sway. When we reach this point it is as though the last three thousand years of Western Civilisation are wiped out, at least intellectually. I am reminded of a Christian evangelist, I once knew, who scoffed at the contribution of the ancient Greeks and posited the Hebrews as the true fathers of Western Civilisation.
Accepting suffering as an unavoidable consequence of Life
However returning to the issue of ‘unavoidable’ suffering: events which occur seemingly as an act of God, wherein we feel ourselves as passive or helpless witnesses. And I think this is where the doctrine of legitimate suffering has its strongest case. I must be honest and say even here it worries me, not so much because I don’t think it may be objectively true. This, objective truth, is of no concern to me at all anymore. However it concerns me that it may cause the believer to passively accept that which, under different circumstances, he may seek to change. Therein lies the real danger of the doctrine of suffering, at least in its weaker form. (Weaker form: accepting suffering; stronger form: active martyrdom.)
This seems counter evolutionary; I believe we need to continually strive to overcome the hurdles placed before us. And that this evolutionary imperative lies at the very heart of humanity; to the extent that, for me at least, it is this drive that is best described as transcendent in the human being. And my greatest criticism of myself has been when, overcome by fear or some other equally paralysing emotion, I have failed to take decisive action where decisive action was called for.
Some guidance from the Last Samurai
In fact one of my greatest fears is the fear of leaving this mortal existence without having made a supreme effort to fulfil my destiny. And what I mean, by this, is to actualise my potential, to concretise that which I am capable of. And in order to hold steadfastly to this ethical decision it is an anathema for me to adopt anything approaching a passive orientation. I am a man; passivity is the domain of woman. I will strive with every fibre of my being to fulfil my destiny. I am reminded of a line from the movie The Last Samurai, where Tom Cruise in response to a question from the Samurai leader, prior to a battle where they face almost certain death, about whether he, (Tom Cruise’s character), believes that a man can escape his destiny, and Tom Cruise replies, ‘I believe a man does all he can, until his destiny is revealed to him.‘
The embrace of suffering as active martyrdom
Going a bit further though, another question, a profound question, is posited by the doctrine of suffering in its strong form. And that is the question of rational thinking versus irrational thinking. I have come to be a great advocate of the irrational perspective. Although I am not, as you know, a Christian in the traditional sense, I am something of a Gnostic. I have come to see the tremendous limitation of reason, particularly when it comes to the central issue of meaning. Reason seems to, at best, show a way or a system, much like a mathematical formula. But what it doesn’t give us is any sort of answer as to why the formula exists in the first place and why we should care about the formula. I think the title of One of Jung’s essays sums up this situation very well ‘Modern man in search of a Soul.’
Modern scientific thinking, the child of reason, is incredibly reductionist. And it too has the effect of reducing the nobility, at least philosophically, of what it means to be human. So I have come to believe that to define our humanity purely in terms of reason is self-limiting and very one sided. We, I believe, should use reason, rather than allow it to define us or say the last word on the meaning of our lives.
Rational vs. Irrational
Yet when confronted by the blind ignorance of the irrational (religious view) I feel tempted to return to the relative comfort of a rational, more secular, view. I ask: for what purpose would we have been given the gift of reason if not to plot a path for ourselves into a brighter future? And how are we going to do this if we stubbornly hold onto irrational views which can be, and frequently are, counter evolutionary. In this case: a doctrine of suffering which can lead to a fatalistic attitude at best and at worst to destructive fanaticism.
So then the issue in question is how do we reconcile reason which whilst magical and transformative in its own right seems to hold no domain in the area of meaning, and irrationality, which is that from which we derive purpose and meaning, but which defies reason and which can so easily reduce us to less than we are capable of, mislead us and be a catalyst for great evil?
In attempting to answer I am reminded of Christ’s answer to the Pharasies, in response to whether taxes should be paid, ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is Gods.’ And this makes good sense provided we can accurately determine what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. But I’m not sure that this is quite as easy as it may appear. Let’s put it another way we could reasonable say: apply reason in the area of our lives that call for reason and faith in the area that calls for faith. ‘Grant me the courage to change what I can and the wisdom to accept that which I cannot’
But what about the huge gulf, that is our lives, that lies in-between to these to deities? What are we to do with that?
Should our lives be lived in service of reason or faith?
In asking this question I am reminded of Gabriel Marcel’s Mystery. A question, that so involves the questioner in its answer, that it is not subject to reductive analysis. Because on the face of it I don’t think there is a truly satisfactory answer. Naturally one could adopt either reason or irrationality and provide a one sided answer. However two and a half thousand years after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the legacy of Western Philosophy the religious instinct appears as strong and as ubiquitous as ever. And so these two champions for the soul of man exist side by side with neither contender showing any significant signs of abating.
A small caveat to the aforementioned: reason, science and secularism need, I believe, no argument as to the central position they occupy in our world today. Irrationality or the religious imperative on the other hand may bear a few remarks in their support. Simply, like the philosopher Zizek, I believe that ideology is no less prevalent in the world today than at the height of political ideological struggle between communism and capitalism. The focus has simply shifted; it is in some ways more subtle. And I think that religion, which is after all an ideology, is much the same.
Although, particularly amongst the so called modern man, meaning simply the disciples of secularism, there is an argument which states that reason is not an ideology nor a religion. But this does not stand up to critical analysis. In the first instance on even moderate questioning a central irrational belief, in the so called rational man, soon appears as the psychic driver. And this is well established by psychology. And then in the second instance what is the belief in reason’s supremacy if not an ideology, a religion?
To be continued.