Suffering is the flipside of love writes David Quinn
Everyone at some point in their lives has to confront the awesome reality of suffering. It may come in the form of ill health, job loss or the breakup of a marriage. These things are bad when they happen to us personally but are often even worse when they happen to those closest to us, especially when we watch a child go through terrible challenges, or worse, when a child dies.
For all of us suffering is hard to endure, but for an atheist it is fairly easy to explain; in a random, purposeless universe bad things happen and we simply have to learn to live with that.
But for me, I cannot accept that as the final answer. I do not believe everything came from nothing, which is ultimately what an atheist must believe. The idea that nothing made everything is for me far less plausible than the idea of a Creator.
This does not mean, however, that the existence of suffering is not a profound challenge for religious believers. We Christians still must ask ourselves how a good God can let awful things happen? This is the age-old question, and frankly, there is no absolutely comprehensive and satisfactory answer to it that I have ever come across. But there are indications of a satisfactory answer.
One is that God gave us free will, meaning people can choose to do good or bad things. When people do bad things, the price will often be paid in suffering, either the suffering inflicted on others by the bad deed, or by the evil-doer on themselves by that same deed, or by many such deeds. How many bad people are happy?
This doesn’t explain physical suffering, however, the suffering caused by something like cancer, for example. Why did God create a world in which cancer exists? This is a completely legitimate question to ask, and as I say, I have never seen a truly satisfactory answer to it. It may have to wait until we are face-to-face with God ourselves.
In the meantime, the challenge is to find ways of coping with pain, of tracing it to its sources, of seeking ways to learn from it and become better as a result of it, rather than bitter due to it.
One of the profoundest meditations on suffering I have ever come across is, curiously enough, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
In his futuristic novel, Huxley imagines a world in which suffering has been more or less eliminated. How has this been accomplished? The answer is by removing all strong attachments. In Brave New World there is no politics because politics can unleash strong, dangerous passions. There is no religion either because religion can also unleash strong, dangerous passions.
Above all, there are no familial ties and no love. We suffer most when something bad happens to those we care about most. We might feel regret when we read about how the loved one of a stranger has died, but it does not compare with the pain we feel when something awful happens to someone close to us.
If we love no-one then we have gone a long way towards immunising ourselves against the suffering of others. This is why the family has been abolished in Brave New World. The only ties people in this world have are light, casual friendships.
As for physical suffering, in Brave New World euthanasia is there for anyone who is suffering from an incurable illness.
Pope Benedict, echoing Huxley and many others, has observed that in order to eliminate suffering, the first thing that has to go is love. He has written: “Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, [love] always demands an element of self-sacrifice…it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.”
He states: “Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.”
Why does consistently avoiding suffering make us hard and selfish? It is because one of the best ways to lead a life without any pain is to avoid becoming too close to anyone. In that way we are less likely to feel pain when someone else is feeling pain.
Suffering can make us bitter at the world, but it can also make us much better people, less selfish people. It makes us more empathetic to others who are suffering, more inclined to help them because we know what they are going through.
The mere fact that we feel pain when someone else suffers is almost certainly because we love that person and it is that love which draws us out of ourselves and make us less selfish. The best response to the suffering of others will always be a triumph of love.
In the end, God prefers that we become better, more loving people than that we have a life of ease, much as we might want that. Love and suffering are two sides of the same coin because even in a world without physical suffering, we will still witness our loved ones do stupid or selfish things that inflict pain on themselves and the people around them.
We immunise ourselves against that by not loving them and thereby we become hard. We become better people by finding a way to make them better people. Suffering is horrible, but it is also the price of love and it can make us more loving, because more empathetic, more likely to help others.
Huxley shows us a world in which suffering has been almost eliminated, but it is not really a human world at all, because no-one loves anyone else, and that is inhuman.
David Quinn’s new book is How we Killed God (and other tales of modern Ireland) from Currach Press. www.currach.ie