Suffering and the Meaning of Life (Full Conversation)
Suffering can either make us or break us. Evan Rosa interviews Elizabeth Hall and Lynn Underwood in a discussion the psychological reality of suffering and how it either contributes to or detracts from human flourishing.
Liz, Lynn, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been this longstanding question, why is there evil? The problem of evil is one of these longstanding, very troubling, deeply troubling questions for humanity, both for religious believers, nonreligious. It’s this great leveler of the human condition. We’re radically vulnerable to sometimes horrendous evils. It’s remarkably easy for us to participate, both as victim and perpetrator.
What I wanna talk to you both about today is not necessarily the why, what is the point of evil, but the how. How do we respond to evil? Specifically on what would be a glimmer of hope in this context, can we grow through suffering? As common as we find lament and grief around suffering, it’s also so common to hear that suffering has the potential to help us flourish. So one of the places I wanna start is, Liz, is there really an opposition between suffering and flourishing, ’cause when we’re in the moment of grief and pain, it feels like it.
Of course, a lot depends on how we’re conceptualizing flourishing. So I think that the default notion of what it means to live a good life in our culture means basically avoid what’s painful and do what’s pleasurable. So if you start off with that particular conceptualization of the good life, then obviously suffering is gonna be deeply antithetical to suffering, to the good life.
But if flourishing is conceptualized quite differently in a way that has been more in the tradition of some of the ancient Greeks and all the way through Christianity, then we can talk about a concept of flourishing that’s a lot more robust. It’s living a life that has purpose, a life that has meaning, and when we think about flourishing through that lens, then it turns out that suffering not only is compatible with the notion, but in some ways can actually enhance really to the good life.
In one sense, it’s about perspective. When you have space for suffering in your concept of happiness or a deeper concept than happiness, the idea of flourishing, the space for suffering is there, what is suffering doing? How exactly, when it is compatible, or if it is compatible, how is it contributing?
So let me answer that in a little bit of a roundabout way. There’s a psychologist by the name of Rory Baumeister, a very famous psychologist who tried, along with some of his colleagues to differentiate between this kind of more hedonic or pleasure-oriented form of happiness, and what we might call flourishing in this context, and so he looked at a number of different variables that might distinguish between the two, and he actually found that suffering or the presence of distressing events in someone’s life was one of the key variables that separated the two. So it was, as you might imagine, not related to the happy life in the sense of the pleasurable life, but it turned out to be correlated in a positive direction with the concept of flourishing. So there is something to what you are implying here.
It’s not just that suffering is compatible with it, but it actually can lead to it, so much so that positive psychologist Laura King once called it the hard road to the good life. I think that the key there is that when we encounter circumstances in our life that are very, very difficult, it leads to a significant reevaluation of the ways that we had conceptualized and thought about life. So when all the pieces of the way we think about life are kind of thrown up in the air and then we have to put them together in a new way, it provides us with the opportunity really for putting it together in a better way, in a way that is more meaningful, in a way that focuses on the things that are important and that are more in touch with reality.
So I think that’s why suffering can lead to flourishing because of the role of suffering and allowing meaning-making. It might be good to even contrast pain from suffering. When you talk about it from the perspective of suffering, there’s this subjective nature to it. Suffering is the perspective of really difficult circumstances. Suffering is an individual’s response or experience to very difficult circumstances. So, Lynn, you make this distinction between dire circumstances and suffering. I wonder if we could tease out some of these dire circumstances that are gonna be common to the human condition.
A lot of the work I’ve done has been like chronic disease and disability in that context, but that could be anything from depression to spinal cord injury all the way through end of life situations. It’s just a real spectrum of things that can count as suffering or can count as dire circumstances. One of the issues that I’ve looked at in the past is stress in our lives. When we think about stressful life events is one way to measure stress.
But we also think we can measure stress by how stressed out we feel. And those are two different ways of measuring stress. I think suffering has a little bit, pain and suffering, dire circumstances and suffering has a parallel to that, that you have dire circumstances or you have pain, some people suffer a lot in very, very similar circumstances. So there’s kind of an individual response to the situation that’s particularly important. Also, not just the individual, but the particular situation. I might use an example of pain.
When you have dental pain, it really hurts a lot, but you know it’s gonna be over. You’re gonna get out of the chair. There’s some suffering involved, but it goes away. It doesn’t hit you like if you have maybe chronic pain that you don’t know where it’s coming from and it stays with you for years. That can cause maybe more suffering for a person, so that kind of thing maybe is a way of thinking about circumstances and then the suffering.
I’m thinking of even the contrast between the pain of childbirth. In those circumstances, we’re almost entering into it voluntarily and the pain seems rather insignificant because it’s not an occasion for suffering at all, so I think that makes a nice clear distinction between pain per se and suffering. There actually are different areas of the brain that activate with pain and suffering.
In fact, I taught a course called Neuro Ethics, and one of the things I’d ask the students was if you could remove, so there’s a part of the brain that activates the suffering, and I can’t remember it offhand what part, I could insert it later in this conversation, but if you had the opportunity to remove that center of the brain or deactivate the center involved in suffering, would you do so? And almost a hundred percent of the students in the class said no, which is very interesting. Even given that choice, they realized there’s something about suffering I would not want to lose, which is very interesting.
What do you think is motivating that response, given the choice, that you would accept and keep suffering as a part of our lives?
Why do you think you students say yes?
I think we’ll probably expand on this as the conversation goes on, but there is something about suffering that is part of real life, that is part of what makes life rich, even without its prediction of flourishing. Now one of the things I would like to say though, too, when we talk about suffering leading to flourishing is that you never want to say somebody else, “Oh, well, you’re suffering, it’s good for you, “you’re growing through this.” [laughs] Or, “This is ultimately going to be good for you.”
I mean, that’s just not the sort of thing you say to somebody else. But when you reflect in your own situation, which is what these students were doing, and it maybe if their mother was suffering, they might have been willing to remove the suffering part of their brain. When we think of another person, it’s slightly different, but when you’re in the middle of it, you can make that choice to stand in the suffering, and there’s something about that that’s real life.
I wonder if this is a test case. Because we are so prone to want to mitigate or eliminate suffering in the lives of those we deeply care for, and yet we’re willing to admit a certain amount of suffering into our own lives, what do you both think about what that says about the use of suffering or the meaning of it, its importance as a psychological, at a psychological level?
We have our own phenomenal logical experience of having had suffering, so there’s a sense, whether we’ve articulated it or not, of how it has contributed to us becoming the people that we have become, right?
So I think that whether we have made that connection or not, there’s a fear that if we lose that, we will lose certain important things that have developed in us over the years. I think that might be the connection. Of course, with somebody else, we don’t have their phenomenology, right?
And so the suffering might feel a little bit more like this Lego piece that we can kind of pull out without affecting the whole, but we can’t do that with ourselves. Suffering is part of our stories, it’s part of our narratives of our lives, of our identity.
I wonder if there’s also this element of thinking more immediately about these people that we care about. We just want them to feel better in the moment, and yet for ourselves, we’re able to see beyond the moment. We’re able to see this is the difference between child rearing, which is suffering that you take on, not child rearing.
This is the difference between childbirth and any other kind of form of suffering that you don’t willfully take on. It’s this concept of having a goal beyond the suffering that we can envision that for ourselves. It’s often hard to envision that for others, and yet what we’re called to is this kind of patience to allow the suffering to be there, to sit there and kind of do its work perhaps, whatever work that may be.
You know there’s a part of this conversation that’s already making me a little uncomfortable, and the part of it is that I think that sometimes these conversations, recognizing the potential for growing through suffering, can sometimes lead to the impression that suffering is a neutral thing, that suffering is not that serious in some senses, or it diminishes suffering somehow.
I think that we wanna be careful in our conversation to keep that right balance that while we acknowledge that good things can come out of suffering, I wanna be very clear that suffering from my theological perspective is evil and that it came from the entrance of sin into the world, and so there’s nothing inherently good about suffering. So I wanna be careful to preserve that distinction.
Yeah, we’re working with things as they weren’t meant to be.
Well, I think that also gets to what you were saying about when we care for the other person, we want to relieve the suffering of others. You know, that it is a good thing to want to relieve, we don’t want to stop relieving the suffering so that they can grow more. [chuckles] It is good that we want to relieve the suffering of other people.
Yeah, that would be to simply treat that person as a means instead of an end. We’re going back a little bit here. Some people grow, Lynn, I think that you raised this issue, some people grow from suffering, others are completely undone by it.
How can we tease out the differences between two individuals, one for whom suffering is a source of strength and growth, and they come through trauma with more character, more resilience, and then others are just bound by it, totally undone. How do we make sense of this phenomena?
It’s an important question because I think it helps to clarify that suffering itself is not the cause of the growth, right? It’s just the occasion for growth. So the response to your question highlights the fact that it depends a lot how people choose to face the suffering. So one answer to your question, not the only answer, by one answer to your question that I think is important is that it has a lot to do with the decisions that we make.
I think it highlights the role of our freedom of choice, our need to choose to respond to the suffering in certain ways and not in others. I think that’s where our religious traditions can be very helpful because often they frame for us what the response to suffering should be and paths that can lead developmentally to growth rather than to decline. Now that’s a very simple answer. Obviously there’s circumstantial factors, right?
There’s in psychology and in your field as well, Lynn, the concept of resilience, and so why are certain individuals more resilient than others is a big question that researchers have paid a lot of attention to, and that has to do with factors such as attachment relationships and current social support, and even things like biological vulnerabilities that they might have, and so there are obviously complexities that bound and shape the decision-making process that occurs in the context of suffering.
Yeah, that seems very important to set that, how different people are. We’re not starting all from the same place in life. I think it’s really important. Then you touched into the religious dimension, and I know when I’ve done some work with disability, there are some people who have a certain concept of theological concept that thinks about religion in a somewhat magical way or thinks about religion in a somewhat simplistic way, not necessarily due to their own fault, but the circumstances of their upbringing.
That simplistic approach to religion often just doesn’t, after the rubber hits the road in the difficulties, it won’t hold, it has to change. That has to change and become more sophisticated. Also, people who may start out with a little more complex sense of the mystery of life are able to hit the ground and be able to be resilient in those situations. Would this be a good time to maybe talk about research, some research on this?
I’d love that, yeah.
One of the ways of envisioning the kind of religious spiritual qualities, I developed a scale, the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, and it has a bunch of questions in it that ask about ordinary experiences, like awe, feeling thankful for your blessings, feeling God’s love directly or divine love, mercy, joy, sense of religious strength and comfort, those kinds of things, both for religious people and for nonreligious people, and it kind of works across a lot of people. Well, this DSES is the short form for it, has been correlated with a lot of… It has been looked at in studies of post-traumatic growth, and you’ve written a lot about post-traumatic growth, and resiliency.
So for example, a study using this set of questions showed that young adults with exposure to violence but have higher score on these experiences have more resilient functioning as adults. Another study looked at urban early adolescence and the role of this higher scores on this scale enabled them to adjust better after they were exposed to that. It’s been looked at with vets and PTSD, and vets who have higher scores on the DSES are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and move towards suicide.
So that kind of… It’s been looked at in those situations where people have hit these hard situations. If you have these resources that are not necessarily a theological picture of the world, but they’re a sense of connection to the transcendent, they are a buffer in those situations, and they enable growth in people more often than not.
There’s a nice theory that I think helps to frame the results that you’re talking about, Lynn, and it’s perhaps most clearly articulated by Crystal Park, who talks about the stress-related model of growth in suffering, and it’s a discrepancy theory. She says that suffering occurs when there is a discrepancy between the meaning that we attribute to the event that causes the suffering and our meaning-making system, what we might call our worldview, right? So the greater the discrepancy between those two, the greater the suffering is gonna be.
For example, I’m diagnosed with cancer, and I have this concept of an all-powerful loving God, and yet I’m seeing my diagnosis of cancer as terrible, a tragedy, something completely bad, something that’s gonna make my children motherless, there’s a discrepancy there, right? Because how can a good and all-powerful God allow a cancer like this, right? So that discrepancy is what causes the suffering, and so the meaning-making process needs to happen in order to reconcile the two.
That can happen in two different ways. It can happen either by reappraising the situation, either by changing our perspective on the situation that’s causing the suffering to align it with our larger worldview.
Close the gaps.
Close the gaps, or it can happen the other way. It could be that our worldview changes in order to accommodate it here. I think that this goes to what Lynn was talking about in terms of some people having a magical or a simplistic view in terms of their religious concepts. It’s kind of an inadequate meaning-making framework, and so something hard hits and it’s too brittle, right? It shatters, it doesn’t allow for accommodation of the event.
Either the person can grow through rebuilding that or it could be that they just end up with a worldview that is shattered and nihilistic. I actually remember a client that I worked with very early on in my time as a therapist, and she had been raised in some form of Christian church and recalled teaching a children’s Sunday School class where she told the children nothing bad would ever happen to them, that God was gonna protect them. Then her sister was murdered.
That caused a huge crisis of faith, as you might imagine, because she had this idea, this religious idea, that God would never allow believers to go through anything hard, and here was her sister who had died, and she completely lost her faith. She was not able to rebuild a positive meaning-making system as a result of that.
So I saw her decades later and she had had a depressed, bitter life spanning over those years because her suffering had led to a decline, the shattering of her worldview. Now it could have been the occasion for her to rebuild a more sophisticated reality-oriented theological worldview perspective. That’s not what happened in her case.
The making sense of, the building meaning, people are gonna ask, how do I build the bridge? And I wanna explore what that is because in some cases that feels so horrifyingly vague to a person in the midst.
One of the basic things that need to happen, obviously, for meaning-making to occur is a lot of cognitive processing, which again might sound kind of vague, so let me get a little more specific here. Frequently, when people are first hit with something really, really hard, what happens is kind of an intrusive form of processing might be the form of intrusive thoughts, or what we clinicians calls rumination, right, just going over and over it. The purpose seems to be just to kind of get a grasp on the reality of the situation. This is actually happening.
After that, there’s more of an intentional processing that can happen where people spend time thinking about the event and wrestling with it and thinking about its implications for their life. This intentional processing, since it is more under people’s voluntary control, can either happen more or less. So when you talk about practices, I would say that one foundational principle is practices that encourage that kind of intentional processing of the event are gonna be very helpful. So what does that look like?
Well, some of it is as basic as having friends and family around, not just to provide practical support, but who are willing to sit and listen for very long periods of time. This is really challenging for people in our culture, because in our culture, again, we tend to try to avoid unpleasant things. So I think that a lot of times when we think of helping somebody out who is going through suffering, we wanna distract them, we wanna cheer them up, we wanna take them away from their suffering.
There might be a place for this occasionally, right, with some moderation, but I think that we also need to be willing to bear each other’s burdens in the sense of just being a listening board and interacting and just taking the time, and sometimes hearing the repetition, right, because they might not… Once, just hearing it once, might not be enough, and that’s difficult.
Yeah, really, I think that’s so wise when you listen. Especially you have the practice as a therapist to draw onto, so you’ve seen this happen with people you’ve worked with. I wrote a book recently, “Spiritual Connection in Daily Life,” and it had a chapter in the middle called “Yes,” and it was about saying yes to life. When we think about saying yes to life, we think about happy times or whatever, but it was kind of about being in our own shoes when we’re in the midst of trouble, too, where it feels uncomfortable to be where we are suffering, but being willing to be in it long enough to really experience it.
I’ve found that when I was writing the book that was the hardest chapter to write, because to write it, I had to stand in my own suffering, I had to kind of touch back into it, and it was not fun. [laughs] If I wanted to write something that would help people, I thought I had to be there in my own suffering. It’s not the same as being blindly optimistic, everything’s going to be happy in the end, all will be well, smiling over the top, but it’s allowing yourself to feel the sad feelings. Einstein said that the most important question was, is the universe friendly?
I thought that was really nice. So when you feel your own feelings, can you hold the tension between those feelings and either a theological concept of a benevolent God or a sense of your own religious perceptions, and also the fact that you’re suffering and you’re in a bad place? If we don’t feel the pain that we have, I can really see how that works with the clients you’re talking about, because that has been my own experience, too.
I also like the idea of using the term finding meaning rather than making meaning, because for me, I know that it’s used a lot, making meaning, but for me if I’m trying to make meaning, I feel like I’m taking Lego blocks and I’m trying to put them together and I’m trying to build something up so that I can make sense of this in a very cognitive way. But if I take this approach of finding meaning, then I think, well, I’m gonna look around me and is there meaning in this world? Is there meaning here? And kind of looking for it, I find that quite helpful.
In fact, that’s where religion comes in, right? People from a variety of fields, philosophers, cultural psychologists, I’m thinking of several authors, have made the point that one of the primary functions of religions is to provide some kind of guidance for suffering, for encountering suffering in the world. In the field that I’ve done some work in, post-traumatic growth, it’s recognized that the most robust meaning-making systems are religions. They go from birth to death, they go from the beginning of time to the end of time, they address everything in between.
So there’s a sense in which they are usually the systems that people turn to to try to understand what’s happening in life. So I agree with you, finding meaning is probably the most helpful term here. Can we go back to the practices? I think that there’s more to be said–
Yes, okay, let’s do it.
Go for it, yeah, please. More about that, there’s more to be said. Again, religions come in there, because I talked about this kind of basic need for cognitive reprocessing, and again, I think it’s specific religious traditions give us certain practices that are helpful in those regards. I think there’s interesting variations among religious traditions, too, and I wanna be quick to recognize that.
Thinking about our own tradition of Christianity, one hugely underappreciated mechanism for helping in this process of finding meaning is lament, so that combination of both grieving and protesting in God’s presence, to God as somebody who actually has the capacity to change things, right?
We have rich resources around lament in the Old Testament. Probably, I read somewhere that the largest book of the Psalms, the largest single grouping of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Other books, of course too, Lamentations and parts of Job. There’s something formative that happens when we engage in lament, so there is something that is shaped inside of us. So that for example the Psalms have certain specific structures to them where generally the psalmist starts off with just the protest and the grief and that kind of thing, and by the end of the psalm, there seems to be a progression of the eschatological hope, right?
So I think that there’s this formation that happens, this meaning-making that happens in lamenting that first fully acknowledges the reality of the suffering, fully acknowledges it’s evil, it’s devastation, the implications it has for its life, but doesn’t stop there but moves on to our ultimate hope, where Julian of Norwich, which is all will be well, actually is true, right?
Not perhaps right now, but eventually.
Not in the moment. There’s this I think the expression of grief and lament, which in some cultures is more public than others, there’s this way that someone who’s otherwise weak, broken down, made almost nothing by their suffering. They in the process of lament and grieving, they retain their voice, and so this practice of simply articulating the grief and articulating the lament is their right to own it and to speak it and to express it, and that comes across in so many different ways.
There’s power, there’s this iota of power in being allowed to reflect and express your grief. This seems to come out in therapy. Lots of it is just speaking through the pain of past experience. What do you guys make of the power of lament in the form of the voice of the sufferer?
I think that the power of it is not simply, certainly it’s there, but it’s not only or simply in the being able to articulate it. I think there’s something very powerful about taking an internal experience and finding words to it. My sense though is that the value of that and the reason that it ends up being so important is because it allows for the interpersonal process, that when you are able to express, that means the other person is able to hear, and you are able to feel heard. I think that that is the value of that process of being able to verbalize.
The lament that we’ve been talking about as a Christians practice can’t be lament outside of the presence of God. For it to be something that actually is healing something that brings meaning, it has to be practiced to God. It has to a lament directed to God in order to have that power. Similarly, in the therapy room, I think it’s the presence of the therapist who is hopefully paying very, very careful attention and trying to facilitate that expression for the sake of the person feeling heard and understood. I think that that is something we underestimate often.
Yeah, and I would just even think to go more broadly outside of the settings, suffering in general does provide real opportunities in our world for caring for each other. Not that I would wish it to be there only so that we could care for each other, but somehow some of the most wonderful love that people feel for each other and express for each other that’s really quite glorious to behold happens in the midst of these suffering situations. It draws from others this love that is enlivening, both for the person loving and for those that experience this kind of care themselves. This touches into what you were talking about, too, to be cared for.
It seems like there’s this real differentiator in speaking your pain or suffering with no response and then speaking it where there is a response, or if not a response, the reception of it, that someone has heard it, that someone has listened to it. It’s that relationship that is maybe one of those factors that allows a bridge to be built between our conceptions of a good God and heinous suffering. There’s this quality of dire circumstances and perhaps the suffering that emerges from it that reveals.
It reveals something about the human condition in the abstract, but it also reveals something about particular individuals and the way they experience the world. You can see this in some of the life and thought of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, L’Arche communities being those communities for the disabled, sometimes very severely disabled, where they’re communities of people living together, some disabled, some not, and it’s this opportunity for the human condition to be revealed, and that’s this language that you find in Jean Vanier. Lynn, I wonder if you could just comment on in what ways have you see dire circumstances reveal more of what we are, who we are.
I actually met Jean Vanier many years ago in Belfast. It was lovely to have met him, and it inspired me, his work inspired me, the whole idea that those who I would think are suffering maybe aren’t suffering as much as the people we don’t think of as people who are not disabled. I think one of the things he… How do we think of suffering? Sometimes we think, oh, this person is doing poorly and they must be suffering. One of the things about Jean Vanier’s communities is that everybody is suffering, and it kind of starts out we’re all suffering.
Of course, the person with the intellectual disabilities is having some particular problems. I had an opportunity recently to actually spend some time actually doing interviews with people in the L’Arche community in Cleveland. Both the people who were in the community and the assistants, the people who were living together with people, and the people who were in the community were being cared for in a way that acknowledged the fact that they had something to give. I think that was just a really powerful thing. How do we envision disability?
One of the things that gets revealed is just our deep vulnerability. So many of us cover that vulnerability and we find ourselves enclosed, sheltered, but it doesn’t take much for the shelter to become a prison.
Well, this is it, and one of the things that we think of, I remember when I met Vanier, I though of myself being really intrinsically linked with my intellectual prowess, [chuckles], whatever that was at the time. I thought I didn’t really have a lot of value outside of what I could do intellectually. And yet here he was reaching out to these people who did not have great intellectual prowess, and also seeing the value in them.
And it made me re-envision my own situation, and I think one of the things that happens when you are in dire circumstances is you can’t rely on your functional abilities as well. Let’s say you have a spinal cord injury or you have a stroke, what defined you can no longer define you. That may be a good thing [chuckles]. Being defined, I know I had a friend who was a college professor and he had a stroke and he could no longer speak. Well, speaking was his thing, he was a college professor. How did he then re-envision himself in that? I think sometimes dire circumstances can call us to a deeper level of who we really are and what’s important in terms of who we are in the world.
Jean Vanier talks about love as this goal for a community of finding peace and wholeness where there is brokenness.
He says, “Love requires work, hard work, “and it can bring pain because it implies loss, “loss of the certitudes, comforts, and hurts “that shelter and define us.” What maybe dire circumstances and suffering lay bare is this feeling of this feeling of great loss, the loss of the ability to speak, the loss of movement, the loss of independence. It’s that loss that he says allows us to eventually grow in love. These are counterintuitive ideas.
Our conversation is reminding me of research, some research that I ran across. It was kind of a review of the literature on post-traumatic stress and these authors concluded that more growth seemed to occur when the circumstances that people faced were extreme enough that they felt helpless and out of control of the situations. So the more they were out of control, the more they experienced their helplessness, the greater the growth.
I find this very interesting from a theological perspective. Just kind of our traditional Christian doctrine would be that we are creatures, God is the Creator, right? So there’s some builtin finitude to our condition, even before we start taking into account our fallenness, our sinfulness, and yet that’s not something that we’re very good at acknowledging, especially in the day-to-day experiences of life. We like to think that we are in control, and of course our culture, our particular Western culture and those of us who happen to be middle or upper class, we have a lot of control in our life. Then all of a sudden, something hits us that is completely outside of our control. We cannot make it better no matter how much we try.
We are faced perhaps for the first time in our life with our utter finitude and helplessness, which I think is actually a really positive thing because it places us where we need to be in relationship to God, because if we don’t feel the need for God, then that shapes the relationship that we have with him. When we really acknowledge who we are before God, that allows for the right kind of relationship to be established.
It’s like a right sizing, a humility that stops short of humiliation, but one that puts us in our context, puts us in our place in the best way possible.
One of the things that, I’ve looked at this Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, and one of the things that we’ve worked with is addictions and substance abuse. A lot of times, a lot of people think a substance, alcohol or a drug can help to make me suffer less. It even can be a doctor prescribed drug. I don’t want to suffer, I want to be more comfortable.
So what happens sometimes in the context of that is addictions or abuse in the situation. The drugs themselves and the use of it at a certain stage might be quite normal, but to move to an addiction and an abuse state. I think one of the things that happens in Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been used for people, it’s interesting to think that the word spirit and the word spirits have a connection to each other, and the people who are in Alcoholics Anonymous often come to it because they’ve faced they can’t do it anymore on their own.
I think one of the steps says you admit that you can’t do it on your own anymore, and they have to ask help from a higher power as they conceive the higher power. So it’s interesting that they usually come into trying to not do this anymore out of a space of suffering.
There is 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, good art, has to be kind of tuned into the real world in a very fundamental way. Just as the students at the beginning, when you asked 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. I think artists have a great sense of perceiving the world clearly in that kind of sense.
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. 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.” I think that’s some of what the artists can do in expressing that. An example of that might be this Levertov poem that I brought for today.
It’s called “Talking to Grief,” by Denise Levertov. Ah, grief, I should not treat you like a homeless dog who comes to the backdoor 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 warm 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, when characters go through difficult circumstances. I think often what appreciating those forms of art can do for people, as with this pathway, is it provides glimmers of the pathway ahead. It shows the trajectory that others have taken through grief and suffering, and allows for new possibilities of how one’s self might then go through the suffering or grief that’s on our plate. So I think there’s almost kind of, 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 maybe.
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 I think of the artist in communicating it. It reminds us that we are 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 kind of an unknown film. 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 is a positive film,” ahead of time so that people don’t go down the tubes in the negative parts of it. But it describes people who 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 a really well-intentioned good person ends up being hit by a car. [chuckles]
Why would this happen? 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 here is this lawyer who is 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.
One of the things that the film does really well I think it 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.
I think somehow you immerse yourself in a film and it can be quite transformative in the way you see suffering in the world. I’m not a great film-goer, I’m sure there are other films that do this as well.
There’s this promise that the book of Romans, that Paul gives in the book of Romans. It’s a very well-known Bible verse, but it really has a way of rubbing up against the felt experience of suffering. We know it as we know that all things God works together for the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Well, there might be some hope for some eschatological working together of good, in the sense of Julian Norwich, all things shall be made well. How do we make sense of a promise like that? A lot of Christians hold onto this as a very dear promise where they’re waiting, they’re waiting, they’re waiting for the good to emerge. I wonder if we could reflect on that as this promise of dealing with all things, including those suffering moments, they’re geared toward providence, that they’re geared toward a final conclusion that is good and loving.
One thought that I have is, of course, it goes back again to how we define the good, right? So we might have certain conceptions of what the good is. We might be very clear in our minds about what would be a good outcome, right? And I think that part of understanding that verse is understanding that God’s notion of turning something to good might not necessarily be the good that we would envision in the situation.
So part of building into or learning what that verse really means in our individual suffering is being shaped so that what we hope for and long for is the same thing that God hopes for and longs for, for us. So that’s part of it. I think it’s very deeply tied into the eschatological hope though. The Biblical terminology for it, the term that’s used again and again and again, has to do with glorification, something about us ultimately showing more and more who God is, which is going to happen, and it’s perfection at the end of time, along with Christ as he comes again in all his glory. But I think that there are twinges of that. There are pieces of that, that happen in the movement, that what we’ve been calling post-traumatic growth or growth through suffering can be thought of as the shapings of the glorification process. I think that’s the picture that we get from Scripture.
It’s the story of redemption.
I might add, too, a quote that seems to fit quite well here by Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and playwright. “Hope is not the conviction “that something will turn out well, “but the certainty that something makes sense “regardless of how it turns out.” Which is another thing to add here. It’s to pry apart our conception of the good, something turning out well from meaning, making sense that we see the place of certain kinds of events or certain experiences in some broader plan, some broader story that we’re a part of.
Lynn, Liz, thanks so much for your thoughts, for sharing your perspectives on this really difficult but present and important issue.