“The manner in which one endures what must be endured is more important than the thing that must be endured.”
Dean Acheson (attrib.)
We are accustomed to regard a person’s circumstances when we consider his or her level of suffering. Certainly certain conditions are more conducive to despair than others. Inmates in a concentration camp, survivors of a cataclysmic tsunami or a person trapped in a horribly abusive relationship can hardly be blamed for succumbing to hopelessness and nihilism. However, the reality is that regardless of circumstances, there are three things that can make human life unbearable:
A sense of aloneness. James Joyce noted, “It relieves us to see or hear our own distress expressed by another person.” The sense that someone else understands what we are experiencing can be enormously encouraging and liberating for us. Conversely, the feeling that no one understands what we’re going through, that no one cares, that no one will help us, is universally regarded as one of the most horrible and terrifying experiences a person can endure. Our species is hard-wired to seek support and caring from others.
A sense of meaninglessness. We need to feel that our lives matter, that our personal energies and abilities are dedicated toward something that has a constructive purpose. We also are constantly seeking to understand our suffering in some context that will give it meaning. It never surprises me that so many people believe that a benevolent deity is responsible for their pain; it gives many comfort to think that their otherwise meaningless anguish is part of a benign cosmic purpose, however mysterious or incomprehensible to us it may be.
A sense of hopelessness. When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we met an obstetric nurse who remarked, “One of the things that makes pain bearable is knowing when it is going to end.” (This may be a good thing to contemplate during contractions.) The feeling that things will never get better, that misery is the permanent state of the universe, is not endurable to the human psyche. People who struggle with suicidality often report these kinds of feelings.
We are religious for many reasons; among these is our need to overcome these three horrors. We come together in religious communities so that we may escape the sense of aloneness, and that we might help others to know they are not alone. We come together in religious communities to make meaning out of life, even life’s most dreadful miseries. We come together in religious communities to find hope, and to try to give others hope.
May God give us the wisdom and the strength to seek others, to find meaning, and to live in hope. May God guide us that we may help others to know that they are not alone, for we are with them; that life has meaning, because we love; and that there is hope for all of us.