After reading renowned Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s great book, God’s Problem, I had a small spiritual crisis (read my post on his book here). My faith in any sort of higher power is often hanging tenuously by a string, but studying the Bible for answers to why we suffer left me with a cold feeling about the idea that there is a compassionate God of some sort. Following Ehrman’s path from devout believer to agnostic felt very natural. I wanted to join him. Then going back to some of my other favorite mystical writers, I was surprised to see how often suffering came up in their work as a good thing. So many religions, believers, and people in general, think suffering has some kind of redemptive, healing quality. Otherwise, why would anybody do a marathon or climb a hill or do anything difficult?
But there’s so much of it out there. And what about starvation, landslides, genocides? And, on a much smaller scale, what about my poor, two-year-old daughter who, in the span of a few days, got a severe burn, a black eye, and a gash in the head?
The burn was my fault. I stopped mowing the lawn because she was in the yard. I’m paranoid about rocks getting chucked out from the base of the mower. Then I turned away for two seconds and she touched the exhaust on the engine. Seven years and three kids, and that was my worst dad move so far, and one of the longest nights of my life–holding her hand in a bucket of ice water while she screamed in pain. Not only did she suffer needlessly, she suffered because of me. The most humiliating moment of my life followed (worse than the time in 3rd grade, when I peed on Michael Brings by accident–hey, I was pushed from the urinal): I had to go to the doctor with her and explain what happened. Nothing is worse than the needless suffering of a child. To top this off, a few days later, a very energetic dog jumped for a bone near her head, and left her with a black eye. The next day, my older son whacked her in the head, accidentally, after she walked into a heated game of Wii tennis.
She looked a character from the final scene of a Rocky movie.
Watching her bravely bear these pains and continue on in her happy-go-lucky manner–she’s a delightful little girl with lots of energy, a beautiful smile, and a contagious laugh–made me rethink a little what suffering really meant. First of all, if an adult had these things happen to them in a matter of days, it would be considered some form of torture, or bad luck, or stupidity. But with kids, it’s par for the course. There isn’t a day, or practically an hour, when her two older brothers don’t draw blood of some kind or another. We hardly blink when one of them comes into the house screaming with a gash in their arm or head from another skateboard/bike fiasco.
Maybe I was over-thinking suffering. Perhaps, as adults in America, we’ve grown to expect suffering never to happen, which is why we are so mystified by it. We want our headaches to go away, our sleeplessness to be cured, our backaches realigned. We have a cure or a vaccine for everything. Kids don’t even get chicken pox anymore. So suffering has become this mystery. With wealth, and medicine, and good food, and friends, and Oprah books, there should not be suffering. Not so in the past. In the past, suffering was so pervasive, it was the normal state. You had a lot of kids because not all of them would make it to adulthood. That was normal. You let your teeth rot out (that had to hurt). You dealt with sores, and diseases, and jock itch (I often watch old Westerns and Victorian era films, where nobody ever bathes or changes, and wonder what they smelled like, or what kind of chaffing they were suffering from).
The story of the Buddha is that he was shielded from all suffering as a child, but I have a hard time believing he never touched a candle or dropped a block on his foot. He seemed like a precocious fellow. But according to the myth, it was not until he left the castle and saw a sick person, an old person, and a dead person, that he became determined to find a path to enlightenment. Suffering was his key.
So do we make too big of a deal over suffering? Is it just something we have to do? In fact, would we be happier if we allowed suffering to naturally take its course? I have a headache. Fine. Let it be. It’ll pass. Maybe we’d all be a little happier if we made less of a deal about it. What if we just let suffering be suffering, instead following our knee-jerk reaction to always cure it.
But does that mean we give up on feeding the poor or curing the sick. No way. The lesson of suffering must always be personal. We need to allow ourselves to suffer more while working to help others suffer less. That’s the paradox.
GIVE UP the idea that you can completely eliminate suffering AND remember you’re going to DIE eventually anyway. You’ll be glad you did.