Suffering in life: If everything is wonderful, nothing is

Over the holidays a nice old couple were going door to door, promoting their religion, but I found the way they went about it quite odd. My parents were out, so I struggled off the sofa to get the door, and no sooner had I done so, the wily looking one on the left unleashed her first question, “Do you think the suffering will ever end!?

I must admit I was quite taken aback, as I’d anticipated a leaflet or a perhaps parcel, or at least as much as a ‘good morning’ to ease me into this philosophical interrogation. My mind was still on the sofa, but nevertheless I thought about it and gave my answer, “No”.

This was apparently not what she had wanted, but her friend leapt immediately to her rescue, unsheathing a pamphlet from her purse, they unleashed a second question: “The Bible says there will come a time when God ends all suffering. Do you think that’s something you’d like?

Clearly confident that this question would guarantee a healthier result, they awaited my answer with friendly smiles. Unfortunately I had to answer “No” once more, and with smiles fading they asked me why I’d said such a thing. Frightened as I was that I’d next be asked the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, I didn’t give much of an answer, replying simply “I think suffering is an important part to my life”. Clearly unsatisfied with this opinion and still wearing half of her earlier expressions, the wily one defaulted to showing me how to access their website, handing over a leaflet, and helpfully showing me the easiest way to give them my money.

I didn’t give these two much thought after they had left, but later in the day I retrieved the leaflet from the bin and began to write this article, because now I’ve had time to think about it I’m sure I was correct in what I said.

There is a saying in Ancient Greek, ‘pathei mathos’, which can be translated as ‘learning through suffering’. In my own life I’ve found suffering to be the greatest instructor, and you only have to look to superheroes and saints to see that our admiration of them stems not from their super strength, but from the hardship they’ve overcome, and their ability to relate to those in suffering. A world without suffering is a world without superheroes, for how can anyone prove themselves if there’s nothing to overcome?

The world those two women at my door imagine is one without suffering altogether. A world of abundant comfort. A nice thought, perhaps, but as David Mitchell wrote, “If something feels abundant, whether it’s liberty or oil, human nature dictates that its value will fall”, and just so the value of comfort would collapse without suffering. If everything in life is wonderful, then nothing is. Because it’s the suffering that makes the good shine out, and as Tolkien wrote, after we overcome hardship “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer”. Without the night, how can we appreciate the day?

People suffer inevitably. Every single person you know has anxieties running about their heads or hardships awaiting them at home, no matter how comfortable they appear on the outside. It is natural to feel this way, it is the stuff that makes us stronger, like exercise it hurts but you can learn from suffering, and I will admire everything you overcome. It’s hard to write about suffering in general, as it presents itself in so many forms, but, writing generally, our purpose is to emerge from it with a smile on our face and leave behind a better place.

The nice old couple who knocked on my door would have you regret the suffering in your life. They would have you vulnerable, desperate to embrace their views with open arms if only it would mean an end to the suffering. They hope you will be weak, and whichever way you phrase it, that sounds like an odd way to promote a religion to me.

William Hoole 

Image courtesy of Ben Kinsley 

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