Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Problem of Suffering, Part II

We now resume the previously begun series on the problem of suffering.

Truth be told, I don't intend any series--just this second blog on the subject. I keep notes for blog ideas--after all, if I am sitting in a meeting, and get an idea, I am not going to whip out my computer and start blogging! When I first began taking notes on this subject, I had titled it "The Problem of Evil"--well, you can see I refocused my thoughts. The problem of evil merits its own entire blog, and it is one that I am not going to tackle.

Some of the comments on my first blog on suffering lead me directly to the main issue I have not addressed--our response to suffering. We can ponder the causes of suffering, we can puzzle over why a good God would allow suffering, but neither of those aspects is within our control. What is within our control is how we respond. There is the response we have to our own suffering, and there is the response we can have to others' suffering.

We know there is a huge range of response of how individuals handle suffering. There are people who suffer great loss, pain, or devastating circumstances, and yet in the face of the suffering show the incredible resilience of the human spirit. There are others who fall apart in the face of far lesser suffering. I have not been able to discern what accounts for the difference. Some years ago, I had two co-workers who were going through hard times.

The first woman really did have a tough life: she had an abusive first husband who was killed in a car crash. At the time she had a 1 year old daughter. When her husband was killed, he had neglected to make her the beneficiary for his insurance, so his mother got it and denied any funds to his wife and child. Then this woman remarried happily, but she and her second husband suffered these calamities: their house was destroyed by a tornado, her husband was attacked by a customer at his business and nearly lost his leg, and then the woman got breast cancer. Through it all--her spirit was unbroken, her outlook on life sunny.

The second woman bemoaned not being loved enough by her parents, constantly resenting her two younger siblings. She came up with one physical symptom after another, even to the extent of having surgery for what turned out to be non-problems. When she had her first child, she transferred all the physical ailments to her completely healthy son. Her constant outlook on life was gloomy. How to explain these two disparate responses to suffering?

Then there is the issue of how we respond to OTHERS' suffering. From your comments, a couple of common themes emerge: 1) for some of us, contemplating others' suffering is too difficult, so we tune things out; 2) where children or animals are concerned, we can't handle suffering; and 3) when the magnitude of suffering is so great, we simply don't know how to respond.

I understand all these responses. To my personal chagrin, I find myself at times being far more sympathetic for an injured animal than an injured human. I really wrestle with knowing how to balance my response to human and animal suffering. I think the cause of this struggle is that implicitly an animal (or a child for that matter) is helpless and can do nothing to ward off suffering. So my sympathy level sky-rockets for the suffering of the helpless.

The issue of suffering on a large scale is the other place I struggle. I see the images of burned villages in Darfur, of stunned refugees who have lost everything. I see the images of victims of the killing spree in Kenya. And in the face of this mindless needless suffering, I am mute--not because I don't care, but because I feel the overwhelming insignificance of my response.

One of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden wrote a marvelous poem on the response to suffering. The poem references the painting by Pieter Breughel, The Fall of Icarus, that is on display in an art museum in Brussels. Several summers ago, my husband and I visited Brussels and I dearly wanted to see this painting. So we went dashing to the museum, just before closing, paid our admission, then rushed in. A museum guide asked if she could help--and I just shouted BREUGHEL. She pointed out how to get there. Once in the gallery where the painting hung, we stood in front of this quite small painting and pondered Auden's observation on the nature of suffering.

Musee des Beaux Arts
By W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears, Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Pieter Breughel c. 1558;
Oil on canvas, mounted on wood
Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels


Anonymous said...

I don't have answers but I suspect I'll be pondering this poem and painting all day. I hadn't experienced either of them before. Thank you for giving me something deep to think about today as I hobble around on an injured knee -- oh, the suffering! :)

Beverly said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post and for the art lesson. It is true that each one deals with suffering in so many different ways.

There are lots of things that I don't understand, but I trust in a God Who knows the end from the beginning, and someday, it will all be made plain to me.

JeanMac said...

Great and thoughtful post. I, too, can't stand to see animals suffer.

Mary said...

I'm far more compassionate to children and animals who are suffering and have felt guilty about it.

I admire your insight and honesty. I've also known families who bear one catastrophe after another and, at times, I wondered "Why, God?" Shakes my faith a bit.