A Pagan View of Suffering

Today’s question for the “Texas Faith” panel of the Dallas Morning News’ Religion Blog is “What do you find in your faith tradition that helps you deal with or explain the reality of suffering?”

I haven’t read much of anything on suffering from a Pagan perspective. Most Pagan theology and philosophy concentrates on what makes us different from mainstream Western monotheism and doesn’t say much about universal issues such as this. About all I’ve found talks about karma, though in a way that’s very different from the traditional meaning of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism.

This is a question that all religions must answer, so here’s my cut at it:

First, suffering exists. It is a reminder that we must deal with things as they are, not as we wish they were.

Suffering is a powerful motivator to learn and to change. A hurricane destroyed your house? Perhaps you should change where you live. A disease killed your child? Perhaps you should help find a cure. Millions are dying in Darfur? Perhaps you should work towards eliminating the root causes of poverty and war. Suffering doesn’t mean you’re to blame for the cause, just that you’re responsible for the solution.

It’s not all about you. While every life is sacred, your continued existence in comfort and pleasure is not the greatest good of the universe. Individuals suffer and die, but Life moves on, ever growing, ever learning.

Suffering can move us to compassion. It helps us to transcend our ego and the natural tendency for self-preservation and self-promotion; to see beyond ourselves to help others and to do the Great Work of life and love.

Suffering can move us to see beyond this life and this world. Even a long human lifespan is a mere blip on the cosmic time scale. Whether you believe (as I do) that our souls live on beyond this life or that we live on through our descendants, what we do here and now has an impact on the future. We owe it to future generations (which may very well include us) to think and act beyond our current situation.

I think this does a pretty good job of explaining suffering from an objective standpoint. As for providing comfort… not so much. And that’s where the fourth item becomes so important – moving to compassion.

When real people are suffering real pain, they don’t want to hear high-level philosophy. They don’t care about being part of a solution, or learning important lessons, and they sure as hell don’t want to hear how “it’s all part of God’s plan” (those people’s god has some pretty lousy plans).

Suffering is real, and we can’t explain it away. But sometimes we can reduce it directly, by giving and helping. Sometimes we can reduce it indirectly, like the good old Southern tradition of taking food to the families of those who died (one less thing for the grieving to worry about). And sometimes all we can do is to be with those who are suffering, to let them know they’re not alone.

I don’t know that this is a particularly Pagan philosophy of suffering. But it’s what makes sense to this Pagan.

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