About two weeks ago, sitting on my front porch and deep-talkin’, a dear friend of mine – who plays a dirty blues guitar and has a deep and abiding love of The White Stripes - relayed to me a conversation he’d had that I’ve been reflecting on ever since. The topic was Zen Buddhism. Now it came up that, somewhere in Tibet, there was a group of monks who had, by all accounts, done it, found The Answer, achieved Enlightenment and reached Nirvana. Whatever they termed it, it all amounts to this; they currently claim to experience perfect contentment, peace and happiness here on earth. They suffer no longer, neither physically, mentally or spiritually. I am unaware of the context of his conversation, whether it was an argument or mere observation, but I know the insinuation of such stories. The insinuation is that Christianity is worthless if heaven can be found here on earth. That the answers must lie in the East and not the West. Now, if I had been in that conversation I probably would have become annoyed, denied that they were happy, started drinking long before 21 and seven o’clock, and read the Summa Theologia with an unhealthy passion. But my friend, who is still working through what he believes, simply said, “Yeah, but what kind of music did they make?”
“And how have they helped the world?”
And thus two different views of suffering are succinctly summarized, the lines are drawn, and a catholic sensibility falls into conversation like an enormous, contradictory and crude chunk of rock. For the Church tells that to run from suffering is to run from human existence. The Church tells us that suffering is what pulls the truth out of us, and to avoid it is to avoid truth. We have suffering to thank for The Catcher in the Rye, charity, Beethoven’s 9th (and all his others besides), Blues, movies as wonderful as Super 8, Alternative Rock, epic poetry, courage, The Raft of Medusa, the salvation of the world, hope, democracy, Mother Theresa and Blessed Pope John Paul II, revolution, and all sorts of helpful things (feel free to add your own below). We have the avoidance of suffering to thank for cowardice, pornography, plastic surgery, obesity, spas, alcoholism, drugs and selfishness. Show me one work of genius that was made by a perfectly happy and content individual, and I will show you an individual who has a good fake smile, and is lying to your face.
Now it’s not that the art of the avoid-suffering sort of worldview is bad:
No one would deny that it’s pretty cool. But once you get over the fact that it’s made of grains of sand, and the colors are bright and beautiful, you hit a wall. Because the art is made for the maker, the experience of patience and contentment is in the careful construction; it is not universal. It becomes a pattern, a background; the viewer can asess its beauty and then leave, unchanged. On the other side, The Church that says “embrace suffering!” makes the Pieta. And you can barely force yourself to leave its presence, if your mind hasn’t been stolen to modernist mush.
Or take the chants of the Tibetan monks; it’s not that they don’t sound cool; they do! There is beauty in them, to some extent, even the single-note chants. No, the problem is deeper and pricklier; that their message is for the chanter, explicitly for the purpose of his meditation, for his path to pure contentment, and thus you rarely meet an individual with an iPod full of Tibetan chant. But you might very well find an iPod full of Gregorian Chant, Johnny Cash and Mumford & Sons, for the three speak to the listener, not just to themselves. Simply put, art that is made in the name of an eradication of human suffering is nearly always selfish. It only seeks to end suffering in the artist, and thus the art – which should always be revealing truth to the world – obscures and suffers in the eyes of everyone else. Whereas art that embraces suffering is always selfless. It says: you and I, we are in the same boat. Let me help. Let me show you hope. Let me show you the beauty that can come from pain. Or, at the very least, let me show my pain, so you may know you are not alone in your own. That is the Christian life lived.
My friend taught me a valuable lesson that day; that while suffering is redemptive on a grand level – in that by it we take part in Christ’s eternal sacrifice – it is also redemptive on a secular, human level, real for every atheist and Catholic, homeless man and CEO, priest and prostitute: It’s our suffering that makes us reach for joy, our daily blues that made Blues in the first place, and – for so many – it’s things like a tortured voice over a Blues guitar that makes life worth living. So, sufferer, create!