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The Table Video

Array Array& Lynn Underwood

Art and the Experience of Suffering

Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
June 9, 2017

Art and the Experience of Suffering – Lynn Underwood & Elizabeth Hall


There’s this beautiful quality of art, whether that comes across in fiction, the novel, poetry, film, painting, any expression of art. We’ve seen that some of the most troubled people with the most inner turmoil, they have turned to art as an expression of how either coping, or an expression of articulating, and lamenting, and grieving. What in the world of art, and what is it about the making of art, or the taking in, the appreciation of art, that helps us deal with suffering?

Well, I think the artist, by his or her nature, it has to be kind of good art, it has to be kind of tuned into the real world, in a very fundamental way. And just as the students at the beginning, when you ask them whether they wanted the suffering relieved, I think one of the things, you get the suffering relieved, you often get your sensitivities and your perception of the world. And I think artists have a great sense of perceiving the world clearly, in that kind of sense. And, I’m particular, one of the things I’d like to maybe share a little bit about is poetry, which I think you see in poets. I am not a poet. [laughs] But I really appreciate the poetry of others. They manage to do great things. And Kierkegaard wrote, “What is a poet? “An unhappy person who conceals “profound anguish in his heart, “but whose lips are so formed “that as sighs and cries pass over them, “they sound like beautiful music.” And I think that’s some of what the artists can do in expressing that. And, an example of that might be this Levertov poem that I brought for today.

Please share.

Which is, it’s called Talking to Grief by Denise Levertov. “Ah, Grief, I should not treat you like a homeless dog “who comes to the back door “for a crust, for a meatless bone. “I should trust you. “I should coax you into the house “and give you your own corner, “a worn mat to lie on, your own water dish. “You think I don’t know you’ve been living under my porch. “You long for your real place “to be readied before winter comes. “You need your name, your collar and tag. “You need the right to warn off intruders, “to consider my house your own, “and me, your person, and yourself, my own dog.”

This poem reminds me of one of the other kinds of art that you brought up. Fiction, sometimes.

Yeah. When characters go through difficult circumstances.

Yeah. And, I think often what those, what appreciating those forms of art can do for people, as with this pathway, is it provides kind of glimmers of the pathway ahead. It shows the trajectory that others have taken through grief and suffering, and allows for new possibilities of how oneself might then go through the suffering or grief that’s on our plate.

Evan: Yeah.

So I think there’s almost kind of a, it’s a word that’s a little reductionistic, it doesn’t quite fit, but there’s almost like a modeling that happens, right?

An exemplar,



Yeah, an exemplar.


I like that word more. That can be presented to us.

It suggests that the way of lament is a well worn path. It reminds us of it. And this is the work of, I think, the artist, in communicating it, it reminds us that we’re not alone.


A film that I’ve shown in class is a film called Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Have you ever seen that? It’s a very kind of an unknown film. And, in some ways, it feels like a downer, ’cause there’s quite a lot of suffering happening in this movie. So when I show it in class, I have to say, “I think this a positive film,” ahead of time, [laughing] so that people don’t kind of go down the tubes in the negative parts of it. But it describes people who are, have situations of suffering in their lives that were undeserved. Undeserved suffering. And the responses of those around them, both good and not good to that. It shows how maybe this young woman who had kind of a difficult life, and is really well-intentioned, good person, ends up being hit by a car. [laughs] Why would this happen? And, ultimately, she does come out of it okay in the end. Not everything wonderful, but it does deepen her understanding of the world. But the guy who hits her is this really, lawyer who’s just full of himself. And, he does a hit and run. And it ends up really getting into him, and transforming the way he views the world. And one of the things that the film does really well, I think, is sets up this issue of finding meaning in the world, well. It’s not a theological film. But it shows how things don’t always work out the way they ought to for the good guys. But that how good can be found in the middle of very difficult circumstances. And the way it approaches time is really interesting, and how we envision time in the world. And I think, somehow, you immerse yourself in a film, and it can be quite transformative in the way you see suffering in the world. And, I’m not a great film-goer. I’m sure there’re other films that do this as well.