I have been thinking about this topic for awhile, and have planned to do a post on it. The thoughts just keep rolling around in my head, and I have not been zapped with any burst of insight on the subject.
But, last evening, just as my husband arrived home from an evening meeting (half-way across our state), he was greeted by our dog. . .who had thrown up her dinner in the entrance way to our house. Then, she proceeded to go out to our sun porch and repeat the process. So, I had two big messes to clean up. Since my husband was tired, I told him to go ahead to get some rest while I cleaned up. After I was done, I tried to help settle the dog down in some comfortable place. Since she likes to sleep on a couch, I tried to get her up on the couch. In picking her up, I obviously hit some tender spot, because she yelped. I felt awful--and I kept wishing that she could vocalize and tell me how I could help her. She was suffering.
Animals clearly experience suffering. One of the essays I have my students read is about animal rights--and, one of the arguments made there is that since animals feel pain, they should not be purposefully subjected to procedures that intentionally cause them pain, e.g. experimentation. It is always interesting to listen to the students discuss this issue, as they struggle to establish some rational balance--some things we do will cause animals pain, but there is a utilitarian end that helps justify the pain.
What about the suffering that the human animal experiences? I recently heard Terry Gross interview Bart Ehrman. Ehrman has just published a new book entitled God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. He has wrestled with this question which is one of the oldest facing any religion. It goes like this: if God is all-powerful and loving, why is there pain and suffering in the world?
I listened to the interview with fascination, because as I thought of some of the classic answers to this question, Ehrman would knock them down. For example, one of the answers is that suffering is the consequence of choices we make, and that it is a necessary component of our having free will. Ehrman says--fine, if you make the choice that causes your suffering, but what if the one suffering is an innocent bystander. One by one, he knocks down these various reasons as to why there is suffering. Well, I will just have to get the book and ponder his reasoning.
Then, almost as a companion to hearing that interview, my daughter proposed that I get and read a book with her--one that she would be discussing in one of her grad school classes: Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. In fairness, Sontag is not looking at the problem of suffering. She examines photography and art that depicts pain and then looks at how we respond to such works. She argues variously that some photos make pain real to us, but that they can also inure us to pain.
A final ingredient in my mix of pondering is a movie we saw last year: Zwartboek (or Black Book). Now technically, this movie isn't just about suffering. The plot revolves around the Dutch resistance during World War II and a young Jewish woman who agrees to become the lover of a Nazi military leader. True--many people in the movie do suffer and experience pain. What fascinated me, though, was the question about what people are willing to do to help alleviate the suffering of others--Rachel, the heroine of the story, agrees to become the Nazi leader's lover because for her, the end justifies the means. Her actions are self-sacrificing, but they can also be seen as questionable at times.
It's a bit of a stretch--putting this movie along side the two books which are distinctly on suffering. In some ways, for me the problem of suffering gets wrapped up with the problem of evil. There does seem to be a connection--at least, sometimes evil causes suffering. I suspect Ehrman probably rejects that explanation--I will have to see when I read his work.
Enough of this amorphous thought process--for now, the dog is on the mend; my brain is in a whirl (per usual) and the computer is working, albeit not as a laptop but as a desktop tethered to an external screen. Maybe that's why I am musing about the problem of suffering.