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Suffering and Soul-Making II

by Theresa Scherf               

Call the world if you please ‘the Vale of Soul-making.  −John Keats


The process Keats calls “soul-making”… transforms raw experience into an ever-deepening personality and a rich way of living.  –Thomas Moore

Amidst difficult life circumstances, the thoughtful young poet John Keats strongly rejected the view, often expressed in his day, that the world in which humanity lives is essentially a ‘vale of tears,’ to be endured or negotiated as best one could in hopes of something better afterward. He would have equally rejected the view, so common in our own time, that the world is a place of unlimited opportunity and progress in which suffering and struggle are unfortunate, even aberrant experiences that we should seek to avoid or get through as quickly as possible. For Keats, who died at the age of 26 after some years of poor health, the world was indeed a place of “Pains and Troubles,” but with a necessary purpose: “to school an intelligence and make it a Soul.”

As noted in the previous article in this series on ‘suffering and soul-making,’ we in today’s culture are caught in a painful tension between a kind of boundless optimism affirming that life should be increasingly happy and a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability as we encounter suffering in both our own lives and those of others, near and far, on a scale heretofore unknown.

This tension is ever-present as we live out our daily lives tugged first one way and then the other between its two poles. There is no axis line in our understanding or practice that serves to connect and balance them, and neither alone is really tolerable. To view suffering as normative for human existence threatens to compromise our sense of trust and hope in relation to life, especially when suffering often seems random and unpredictable. To view suffering as aberrant and optional, as a misfortune we must try to avoid, eventually leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy when ‘pain and troubles’ inevitably make their appearance in our lives.

We in our present-day culture, with its expansive and acquisitive mindset, often have very limited resources for coping with suffering and integrating it into our lives. Instead of owning our difficult experiences, we seek to distance ourselves from them in various ways, such as denial, resistance, and numbness. All of these responses only increase our pain, because they alienate us from our essential selves and dismiss some of our deepest life experience as inauthentic.

When we do not allow suffering its proper place in our lives, we effectively cut ourselves off from its power to heal and transform us in profound ways. We also leave ourselves without any overarching understanding of life that enables us to draw forth insight and meaning from our difficult experiences. In addition, we pay a high price in terms of our capacity for awareness, sensitivity, and creativity in our daily living. Our quality of life is actually impoverished and our pain increased.

Alongside perspectives found in the arts, a wide variety of literature, and philosophical interpretations, all of the major religious traditions have focused strongly on the issue of suffering. The very core of our soul and our deepest creative impulses are energized, set in motion, by experiences of struggle and pain. (The Latin root word for ‘suffering’ and ‘passion’ is the same.) Suffering is considered to be a natural and inevitable part of life in the view of most great spiritual teachers. Indeed, according to the Buddha, the first of four basic truths about life is the truth of suffering.

There is a story about a woman who sought out the Buddha after the death of her young son, beseeching him to bring her child back to life. The Buddha replied that he would grant her request if she would bring him a mustard seed from a home that had not known death. Some time later she returned and told the Buddha that she had learned in going from house to house on her quest that death visits everyone. As she came to accept this and offered support to others who were bereaved, she found comfort and strength.

Pain and loss are universal; none of us are exempt. In John’s gospel, Jesus raises Lazarus from death in response to his sister’s pleading, but he will do nothing to avoid his own impending death. He tells his disciples that they must ‘take up their cross’ if they are to follow him. They will not be exempt from suffering any more than he is. Life and death and life again are continually juxtaposed in the gospel traditions. Crucifixion and resurrection are bound together.

Along with a recognition of the inevitability of suffering in human life, many have observed that happiness and suffering are connected—indeed, that one cannot exist without the other. Pema Chödrön writes:

         Who ever got the idea that we could have pleasure without pain? It’s promoted rather widely in
this world, and we buy it. But pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. They can be
celebrated. They are ordinary. Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything
that ends is also the beginning of something else….
We always want to get rid of misery rather than see how it works together with joy. The point isn’t to
cultivate one thing as opposed to another, but to relate properly to where we are. Inspiration and
wretchedness complement each other. With only inspiration, we become arrogant. With only wretched-
ness, we lose our vision 
(When Things Fall Apart:61).

The medieval mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg used the image of two wines that we are given to drink in life: the white wine of joy and the red wine of sorrow. Until we have drunk deeply from both, she said, we have not truly experienced life. More recently, English playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote poignantly of his prison experience, observed: “Though my heart is broken, hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow into the world…To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those it touches holy” (Holland and Hart-David, eds., The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde:912).

In his book Ethics for a New Millenium, the Dalai Lama proposes a common ethic that we might all share, whatever our religious background. It is an ethic grounded in “the basic human experience of happiness and suffering.”

Some religious writers have contended that not only do human beings experience suffering, but God suffers too. Meister Eckhart affirms that “God’s willingness to become human in Jesus inevitably involved God’s willingness to suffer.” Contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann has described Jesus as “the crucified God.” Rabbi Abraham Heschel has also emphasized the suffering of God. “God’s participation in human history…finds its deepest expression in the fact that God can actually suffer” (John C. Markle, The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel:130).

Here we encounter the ideas that suffering is a fundamental reality of human life, that it is inseparable from happiness, that it can be fruitful, and that it is a shared experience between God and humankind. But are all of those things true? Why is/must there be suffering? If there is a God, why does God allow suffering, much less share in it? Isn’t suffering rather a punishment from God? If suffering results from human sin, why do good people suffer?

Our previous survey of the major world religions revealed that these questions have stood at the heart of each one. Among the insights they share is the view that oftentimes suffering is something we ourselves have brought about by our choices and actions in relation to ourselves or one another. There is also the view that suffering uniquely provides important learning experiences enabling us to grow/develop more fully.

Suffering has also been seen as being potentially sacrificial and/or redemptive, capable of having meaning and value for others (such as the suffering and martyrdom of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King). Here we also see that some suffering is unjust or unmerited suffering. The mainstream of these religious traditions rejects views of human suffering as being entirely self-created, on the one hand, or a result of the direct intervening will of God, on the other.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his classic Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, describes his own search for answers to the question of innocent suffering in the wake of his young son’s illness and eventual death. He considers various explanations that he himself had often heard regarding why people suffer, most of them attributing suffering to God’s will in one way or another for a variety of reasons–or for reasons we cannot understand. Kushner finds all of these explanations flawed. Instead, he turns to the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures and finds in the layered development of its story a more authentic answer.

There are three things that everyone believes in the story of Job, Kushner observes: 1) God is all-powerful and makes everything happen, 2) God is just and fair, seeing that people get what they deserve, and 3) Job is a good person. When Job suffers, however, and so massively, it becomes clear that one of these premises must be false. Job himself questions God’s goodness, and his friends question Job’s goodness. The author of this story, however, questions (and rejects) the premise that God is all-powerful. Suffering, especially innocent suffering, is not the direct result of God’s will.

Accepting this conclusion may mean relinquishing our belief in a God of justice who is in control of everything, but it gives us a God who is faithfully and supportively present with us when bad things happen. “We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted” (42). Kushner concludes that sometimes there is simply no reason for the suffering we are experiencing, no answer to the question “why?”. The world is largely an orderly place, but “pockets of chaos” remain. Some events happen at random. He suggests that it may well be that the work of creation is not finished yet and that there remains a creative impulse acting upon it, the Spirit of God working over time to bring order to the remaining chaos in completion of God’s creative vision and purpose.

One of the points made in God’s response to Job in the biblical story is that how and why things happen as they do is far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Perhaps this is an ‘explanation’ that still has validity and meaning for us today. What all of the above perspectives seem to share in common is the suggestion that ‘why?’ is the wrong question to ask in seeking to come to terms with and gain understanding in relation to suffering. Instead, accepting suffering in life as a given, we might find it more helpful to explore thoughtfully and openly the question of what meaning and value our experiences of suffering may offer us.

When we move in this direction, it is striking to discover how many diverse thinkers, most often after passing through the depths of their own experiences of suffering, concur with Keats. It is not the only possible outcome of suffering; it doesn’t happen spontaneously on its own. But authentically entered into, opened to, suffering is able in a unique way to work in and with us toward soul-making—toward enriching and enlarging our being at its deepest levels creatively and fruitfully.

This idea is expressed in a wide variety of ways in both religious and secular writings. Meister Eckhart commented that “the fastest beast that will carry you to perfection is suffering.” Similarly psychologist Rollo May observes: “Only by going through hell can one reach heaven.” A Sufi saying honors the way in which different parts of ourselves are engaged simultaneously by suffering: “When the heart grieves for what is lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left.”

This is echoed somewhat in a poem by Wendell Berry:

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

 -from from Sabbaths

Jack Kornfield notes that “for many masters, the gateway to the spiritual opened when loss or desperation, suffering or confusion drove them to look for solace of the heart, for a hidden wholeness” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry:5). Another Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah, tells his students: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” Surya Das affirms that “with every loss or separation comes the possibility of change, growth, and transformation” (Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be:8).

In his book Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore observes that seeking to avoid times of suffering and struggle causes us to regress us spiritually, “because the dark nights of the soul are supposed to initiate you into spiritual adulthood” (15). Such a time “pushes you to the edge of what is familiar and reliable, stretching your imagination about how life works and who or what controls it all. The dark night serves the spirit by forcing you to rely on something beyond human capacity. It can open you up to new and mysterious possibilities” (xix). He suggests that it is suffering which gives life its contours, uniqueness, and beauty.

These reflections point us in the direction I would like to move in the third and final article in this series of reflections on ‘suffering and soul-making.’ There we will probe a bit more deeply into the process whereby suffering becomes transformed and transforming. None of this is to say that suffering is easy, or that we should seek it out. Rather it is to suggest that when it comes to us and we are willing to receive it, suffering has the capacity, in a way that nothing else does, to expand our lives, bringing us to a new and deeper level of meaning.

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