True suffering — whether in death, disaster, or disease — is united by the fact that we hate it. Our beings reject it, our minds refuse to comprehend it, our bodies are sickened by it, and it’s all a simple matter of definition: To suffer is to experience that which we do not want to experience.
Now it’s impossible — from a purely secular standpoint — to answer the question of why we suffer. For if there were a good reason for our suffering, then that suffering would become tolerable to us — and then it wouldn’t be suffering at all.
I’ll try to be clear: If we could say with precision why we suffer, and to what end, then we wouldn’t be suffering. We would be athletes with sore muscles. The athlete knows why he is experiencing pain, and he knows to what end (becoming stronger, improving at his sport, etc.). He will not be swept up in fear and confusion after each workout, nor will his very being rebel against the pain in his triceps. He is not suffering in the strict sense, and we’d be fools to treat him as if he were.
Or take burning our hand on a stove. Again, this pain is something we want to experience. Pain, after all, is the message rammed into our brain to remove our hand, lest we burn ourselves through to our muscle and bone. Pain of this sort is useful and answerable — it is not suffering, and no one treats it as such.
It seems that for suffering to be suffering — for it to truly be that which do not want to experience — it cannot have a satisfactory answer. To put it another way: The existence of a clear, natural purpose to “suffering” indicates that the experience in question is not “suffering” at all. Thus there exist no support groups and therapy sessions for stove-pokers and athletes, and quite a few for cancer patients and the survivors of massacres. The difference is simple: The former can point to some greater purpose to their pain — an un-destroyed hand or bigger, stronger muscles. The latter cannot. All we can give those truly experiencing suffering are expressions of support or comfort. We can give no purpose.
This is no failure on our part, our inability to give a rational, secular purpose to suffering. It simply speaks to the fact that if there existed for us a perfect, satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering, then we would not really be suffering. Suffering, to be suffering, seems to require its awful purposelessness.
This, of course, is a terrible paradox and an immediate problem. It is our natural response to the experience of suffering to ask “why?!” and “why me?!” Few would deny this. Yet it is inherent to the nature of suffering that there be no answer to these questions. This is a tension begging to be released, a conflict in desperate need of resolution.
You cannot blame the atheist then, for speaking in religious tones after a great tragedy. You cannot blame the agnostic for going to a Christian memorial service, nor the materialist for finding comfort in the words “Rest in Peace,” even if he believes that the only peace after death is that of oblivion. Since we are necessarily denied a natural solution to suffering, we turn our minds to the supernatural.
This is no sign of weakness, but a sign of common sense. If I were to sit in a classroom and find that there were no answers I could give using the English language, it would be no weakness to conclude that my answers must be given on a different plane, in French or Mandarin, depending on the class. So too, if we find in this life a question that necessarily has no answer on the secular plane — in this case, “to what end do we suffer?” — then it is no weakness to begin operating on the religious frame. In fact, it’s entirely natural.
Whether this religious plane is true, and whether it has anything to offer us is precisely what I’ll discuss next.
Actually, wait, ain’t nobody got time for that. I already did. Read it.