THE BLOG
05/20/2010 03:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why We Suffer: Hoping for a Broader View

Writing in the early 7th Century, Saint Isaak of Syria observed, "Blessed is the one who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful."

Muddling about here in the green bud of the 21st Century, I'm finally catching on to this very old news, and I'm increasingly compelled to see how an honest accounting of where I fail--knowledge of my own weakness--is far more likely to lead to progress than is any habitual exercise in self-satisfied, self-congratulation.

And it also occurs to me that affliction and suffering may provide our sole access to this kind of knowledge. They appear to be the only way we come to glimpse and thereafter to know our condition, to appreciate our vulnerability, and to live according to this new and chastening light.

Think of it as an efficacious, corrective tilt of the head, an opportunity to see what we previously had not been prepared to see.

More than that, affliction may oblige us to see what we, in fact, had worked very hard not to see.

Of course, that is assuming we manage to respond well to these our afflictions--responding alertly, seriously, humbly and in good faith.

I'm thinking that most of us, most of the time, do respond pretty well--at least to our own suffering. Still, even if that is the case, this more or less local focus may not be enough.

Faced with personal affliction, immediate pain--the prospect of cancer, or heart disease, or the heartrending loss of someone we cherish--most of us respond wisely, with something like a chastened, sober, more circumspect life.

I remember the words of a wise monk I happened to meet very briefly on Mount Athos near the end of his life; he was fully aware that he was dying of cancer, and had once comforted his (and my) beloved friend Stelios by saying to him that "Paradise is filled with men and women whose cancer saved their lives."

Shocking as such words may sound to the contemporary ear, the Athonite father had an uncommonly keen sense of a range of matters that most of us only dimly apprehend. While we may be tempted to respond to such final pains with bitterness, disappointment and resentment, I've personally known dozens who have recognized and have seized this opportunity to become the men and women that they had, in their deepest hearts, long desired to be.

It was as if their imminent deaths freed them from petty, distracted lives, and freed them into greater, genuine living--however briefly.

My own father was a man whose frenetic creative activities kept him moving from one art form to another throughout most of his life. He was also a man who--like the son writing this--was prone to impatience, and had struggled over years to rein in a considerable temper. During his last years, as the cancer in his throat commenced to spread throughout the rest of his body, my father became a remarkably calm, loving, and profoundly quiet man; he became--I now realize--a man of prayer.

During the days immediately following his death, my mother said to me, "A lot of people--when they know they're dying--get angry and bitter; your father just got sweeter." Of the countless lessons my father taught me during our too-brief-seeming thirty-four years together, this was the most profound: how to die, how to die well.

In my experience, this is not such an uncommon phenomenon among people of faith--the ability to discover uncanny blessing in the midst of our own suffering, our own pain. It makes evident what Saint Paul figured as "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."

That said, faced with the pain of others, however, some of us may be tempted to respond less well. On the one hand, in the case of someone we love undergoing pain, we may be angry for them--as I was for some years angry that my father was suffering; on the other hand, in the case of acquaintances or anonymous others, we may simply, obliviously turn away. The poet W.H. Auden begins his famous poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," by noting:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

What is first delivered as a more or less matter-of-fact banality attains something more nearly an indictment in the poem's conclusion:

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I have called this long and episodic essay The End of Suffering. By so doing I hope to double-up on the connotations of that suggestive word, end. Certainly, I mean to gesture toward a someday conclusion--a day when, allegedly, suffering will be no more, when, as the scriptures indicate, "there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying"--but, more than that, I hope to invoke in this our puzzling meantime a sense of suffering's purpose, to imply what each of us suspects: that suffering is no end in itself, and that affliction is, of itself, no great virtue.

We must puzzle out a way to see our suffering as a means, a circumstance of our common journey that may offer us a clearer view of the task at hand. Along that troubled journey, our afflictions and our suffering may also allow us a glimpse of what any recovery of actual virtue might require.