The Paradox of Suffering

God's mother "suffering".

God’s mother “suffering”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There exists an inherent paradox in our understanding of the nature of suffering, the effects of suffering, and the significance of suffering. I shall try to identify the paradoxes, in order, and offer insight into the nature of this phenomenon – that is, why there continues to be logical inconsistencies.

On the first part, of the nature of suffering itself, we can say very little, objectively – because suffering is so tailored in such intricate ways to the individual suffering; however, there are certain qualities we can attribute with suffering, generally. What I can do to remedy this problem is explain the nature of my suffering, offer specific examples of its effects, and state the significance and the paradoxes found there within.

On the whole, suffering is to be viewed as a negative thing. Negative because it subtracts certain qualities from the person suffering – as compared with either ‘other people’, or at the very least, ‘how they were before their afflictions’ (although, to be sure, so long as we are alive, we are suffering – to some degree or another). Much like the dynamic between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we cannot view suffering as a state that exists independently of other states – that is, the state of ‘well-being’. You will not find a worldview that interprets it otherwise; Darwinist belief is grounded on the notion that life came into existence and evolved into the many complex forms it now takes because the ‘better’, or ‘healthier’, or ‘more genetically enhanced’, traits were selected for. Maybe they could make an argument for physical pain as a spandral, but even then it would be a weak argument, and one that still elevates suffering from the state of existing in-and-of-itself, to existing as a consequence of another state. So we can all agree that, much like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, suffering exists only because ‘well-being’ exists (well-being as the maximal potential of human health – we all have intuitions about this). So we see that suffering is in fact a ‘bad’ state of affairs – not a bad ‘ideal’.

In my case, I have lost the freedom of unbounded (relatively) choice. I want nothing more than to pursue my studies with my utmost attention, but a gulf exists between what my mind wants, and what my body can offer. And so I am limited in this respect. When it comes to work and my career, I don’t have a great many choices – in fact, I have had to change my vocational goals, and so too my focus at University because of my ever-changing illness. I cannot choose where I walk to, or how long I can stand up for, or sit at a computer. These things are chosen for me. And so we can see that suffering limits freedom.

So far I have briefly covered the physical limitations suffering imposes on myself, now I’d like to look at the mental effects of suffering. By way of limiting my choices, suffering impacts my sense of well-being – that is, my psychological interpretation of how things are going, generally. This can take many forms: depression, anhedonia, anger and even under certain conditions, forms of psychosis. I won’t get into the ‘how’ of all this, for I would surely to a sub-optimal job, but I think I can briefly concern myself with the why – with some confidence.

I think it’s safe to conclude that our sense of well being, the mental aspect, comes to us by way of an interpretation of our physical condition, and how that relates to certain norms and ideals we hold (again, because sadness is a ‘bad’ state, it certainly cannot exist independently of itself, but rather as a watered down form of another state– in this case, ‘happiness’). Most of us would agree that being homeless is not to be preferred to having a home. Or being poor to being wealthy – although again, we can discover that positive states (that is, states which add something – in this case to a ‘good’ state) can be negative as well (the ultra-wealthy man who only focuses his attention on earning money). By adding too much in one direction, you take away from it in the other. So we can also conclude that being ‘happy’ is to be preferred to being ‘sad’. This is in part due to our inborn intuitions about the nature of ‘good and bad’, but also due to our subjective experience of the thing itself. Being sad hurts. Not only does it hurt, but it’s dysfunctional. When you’re sad your body rebels against you – to adjust to this stress your vascular system sends out an abundance of plasma and leukocytes to healthy tissue because it perceives injury. When you’re sad, your body thinks your physically hurt. Suffering takes a mental toll on the person who suffers. To be sure, suffering makes me sad as well. When I would rather study (because studying is the activity I most enjoy) than have to stay in bed due to pain, or work-out but find that I cannot, I am saddened. I am not saddened arbitrarily. If it was a cultural norm to stay in bed all day and not work-out, I don’t think I would be any less sad, and instead feel like I somehow ‘fit-in’ (nor would my body rebel against me any less). This way of thinking (the evaluation of bad states of affairs as watered down good states of affairs) can apply to all the other mental states suffering induces, and so I won’t go into describing anger, or anhedonia, or boredom – surely I would simply repeat myself three more times.

So we can understand that suffering is a bad and negative thing, and that the effects of suffering are both bad and negative affairs. But what is the significance of suffering? Why is it so bad and so negative? Suffering is not the way things are supposed to be; it’s a dysfunctional state, grossly out of proportion with what was intended. It’s significant not because the ratio of dysfunctional implications is greater than non-dysfunctional and functional implications, but rather because it is negative always. There are no states of suffering that are good in an of themselves, or even ‘indifferent’ to (that is, ‘even’) suffering and functioning – they are always bad. An argument could be made that when suffering is made null and void, the weight of it is lost, the gravitas. For instance, when a depressed man takes an anti-depressant, or when I take pain-medication to control my pain. But even our weakest intuitions can smell somethings wrong with that objection, without even looking to closely at it. In the first case, anti-depressants have effects that go beyond curing the depression – and so have the potential to actually add to the suffering (as do opiods – no treatment is perfect). As well, depression is a mental state, and for the most part mental states arise secondarily to physical states. If a man came into the doctor all bruised around his stomach, and the doctor gave him some cream, we would call that doctor a fool – and would be reprimanded quite swiftly as this poor soul is surely to die of internal bleeding. So depression in that sense can be seen as a sort of symptom of a greater underlying pathology. When you treat it, you’re only masking the underlying problem. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction because a dysfunctional system will always create dysfunction in all the things they encounter. If the blades in my lawn mower are all dulled and bent out of shape, it doesn’t matter how many different lawns I cut, each time the lawn will come out looking quite shabby. The same is true of suffering.

So, there are things we can do to alleviate our suffering. But basically, our suffering remains, and will have an impact on everything that we do. There may be things we can do much more easily, and even things we can do completely unaffected by our suffering. There will be spots on the lawn that come out looking great – maybe the angle of a particular spot matches the angle of my bent blade. Even so, because of those few good spots, we wouldn’t go on to call the state of the lawnmower good, or functional. Suffering is still bad, even if we can overcome it.

There a few major paradoxes (will there be suffering in heaven? Suffering in some respect yeilds very positive results, is it still bad? Why do I want to continue suffering instead of not suffering?) , or inconsistencies in regards to suffering that I want to spell out, hash out, and discard. The first paradox is quite simple, but it depends on the second: can we suffer in heaven. The second: since suffering leads to learning, and learning is vital, and suffering is apparently bad, how can it be that it is good? Thirdly: those who would rather continue suffering than be offered a cure.

I’ll deal with the second, first (as the first and third depend on it). ‘Since suffering leads to learning, and since the lessons taught are exclusive to those who suffer, and since suffering is bad and learning is good, isn’t learning while suffering bad? Or is it good? Can it be both’?

This is the question that I struggle with the most – I find myself consumed by it in thought, often. I should rephrase that, though. I don’t mind the fact that I struggle with that question; actually, I quite enjoy those types of puzzling things. But since it’s hard and it’s difficult and confusing and that opens up many different hard and difficult corresponding things, isn’t it bad? Isn’t the ‘struggle’ aspect negative? A materialist won’t have a very difficult task ahead of him if we asked him this question. A christian, however, does. Firstly, Christianity, like any theistic belief, is centered around a god. Christians believe that the Christian God has three essential qualities: omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. The principle of Imago Dei can help shed light on this problem. God has unlimited power, knows everything, and is everywhere at once (operates outside space and time – in the conventional sense). [good question would be to find out if angels still learn]. Christianity dictates that human beings will live forever (physical death, not spiritual death). Not much is known about ‘the afterlife’. Some contend that after death we abruptly ascend into heaven to spend an eternity in bliss and happiness, never having to worry or struggle again. Others, like Bishop N.T. Wright, think that after death we go to a sort of place-holding stage. There, with Christ, we wait in peace until the ‘new earth’ is restored (I’m inclined towards this view). The big question concerning all of this is: what sort of existence will we have? This question promotes a slue of metaphysical and existential inquiries to the front of our mind. Questions like: will there be pain? Will there be learning? Will we still grow? Will there be sex? Will we have bodies? Will we need to eat? Will we itch? Will be become sore and crampy? Will we become angry or upset or lonely? Prudent to this essay is the question of ‘will there be learning’.

I’ve been through hell and back in the past two years (the past six months especially). When I was sick, but not too sick, I was in a place where I desperately wanted answers. I desperately wanted to be healthy, free, and ignorant and was plagued with the unanswerable question ‘why me’. One night I was talking with a friend who shares my disease. We were sharing anecdotes and comforting one another. She signed off that night by saying ‘yeah, this all sucks. But it’s made me who I am and I wouldn’t change anything about myself’. Immediately this overwhelming sense of distrust welled up inside of me ; my B.S. Radar was blinking wildly. I was sure she wasn’t being entirely truthful, and rather was simply reciting cliches and taking a socially approved standpoint in regards to her ‘honor and strength’. I thought ‘why in the world would anyone want to be in pain, severely limited, dysfunctional, and live in a wheelchair’? I just couldn’t make sense of it. For a long time I felt this way. I have come to learn precisely what she meant. She doesn’t mean that her disability is good in and of itself (we’ve already established such a thing is impossible – and thus this is a commonly perceived, but ultimately incorrect, paradox), but rather she has concentrated the goodness of her disability (and all the things that it brings), and that this process has made her a much better person than she was when she began this journey. An odd phenomenon arises in the disabled: there’s this feeling of gratitude for their illness. Some might call that a coping mechanism, or a defense mechanism (or any such pathology), but I’m not overly concerned with the how. For me, my disability has taught me how to deal with suffering – how to overcome it, how to find the goodness in it, how to turn it into a lesson and apply that lesson elsewhere. Whenever something bad comes my way, because I have dealt with so much trauma, and have overcome that trauma (mentally), this sense of excitement and happiness begins. I’m excited because I know that something great will come if only I keep my head down and push through, and I’m happy because I know this; I’m happy that these negative, stressful situations don’t incite overwhelming feelings of anxiousness, fear, and doubt. And so in my mind, if I went back and changed any of the one things that happened to me, or any of the one characteristics of my disease that make me unique, I believe I wouldn’t be where I am today (which is a really good place). I understand the value of life. I never say ‘why me’. Instead I say thank-you. I have the opportunity to experience this odd phenomenon, I’m still living and breathing – my mantra is ‘things could be worse, but there not’. This makes me very happy. This is where the paradox crops up. I’ve grown so attached to this method of learning, I’ve found it so very efficient and helpful, that the prospect of parting ways with my disease isn’t very inviting. I have also worked very, very hard to accomplish what I have. I’ve come to understand the true value of learning – this very much excites me. So the idea of just one day ‘knowing it all’ or at least ‘knowing exceptionally more’ in an instant, feels like cheating. I won’t deal with the second half, but the first half I can answer with some confidence. Heaven is a place where dysfunction does not exist. That means that there won’t be stressful obstacles and dysfunctional events that present themselves in my new life. My disability is sort of an instructional manual on how to deal with those events. Although it’s entirely possible that I can retain my struggles in the afterlife (although I think not), I really won’t need them. Learning here, on earth, is very hard; it’s full of dysfunction (another essay wouldn’t even cover this topic). Learning in the after-life, so I believe, won’t be. Although we won’t every obtain omniscience, many contend that we will still learn.

Thus, since disease and disability, once tackled mentally, provide information on how to deal with the negatives of life, and since heaven is free from the dysfunction of normal life, disease and disability won’t be necessary – although they will be commended. Pain, for example (a form of suffering), is just a state of health that is dysfunctional. If I find good parts in pain, it is because pain refers to health. Pain is not good in and of itself. And so those who suffer that claim to have found great truths, and those, like myself, who are excited by new pathologies for the challenge, to test what kind of stuff were made of, have found the goodness that these states of suffering refer to.

Suffering is a very complex topic; one full of emotion and contraversy. Although I don’t claim to understand all the aspects (in fact, I think I’m only ‘familiar’ with a few), I have been fortunate enough to have had a first hand experience with many different forms of suffering. Although suffering has shaped my life, and made me a better person. I wouldnt’ wish it on anyone. And although I consider myself quite an accomplished man (emotions, ‘goodness’, virtue, morality) in respects to how I was before, I know plenty of healthy people who are just as ‘good’ as me, and many more who are better. Suffering is not the only conduit towards becoming a better person, but it’s a testament to the strength and importance of people. I’ve made the best of a very bad situation, and although in my eyes I’ve come out ahead of my healthy coutnerparts, I know that I haven’t. That fact doesn’t scare me, or detract from the weight of what I’ve said here. Conversely, it reinforces it. If there’s one thing to take from all this it’s the cliché: never give up. I have lived in the lowest depths of depression, I’ve contemplated suicide more times than I can count, but I’ve come out of that – I’ve gone far beyond anywhere I would have imagined myself. I’ve learned how to deal with any struggle. I’m happy, because of and in-spite of my disease, and the suffering in life. These realizations and fine-tuned faculties aren’t innate facets that set me apart from the crowd. Anyone can accomplish these feats. It just takes time. And that’s why, in-spite of all the reasons I may want to say ‘why me’, I say ‘thank-you’.


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