That was the question from a congregant after a sermon on knowledge and belief at my Unitarian Universalist church. Palpable concern tinged with emotion filled the asker’s voice as she spoke: How could one manage the pain and suffering that goes with life without something greater than oneself along for the ride? Or, at least, how could one see one’s way through travesty without a sense of it being part of a greater purpose?
After the speaker worked away at his answer, I turned to my pew mate who had lost her husband to cancer. Before I could form the question, she answered, her eyes wide: “If there had been a purpose, that would have been worse!”
I agree. I cannot reconcile a greater purpose with the traumas and suffering of this world, a purpose that requires, for instance, someone young to die. To do what? Teach patience? Persistence? True love? Endurance? A tolerance for suffering? Can’t most of those be learned in our more ordinary moments, such as while in line at the post office or during a bout of the flu? Questions about the source of a greater force or divinity aside, the thought that a greater source or being would have a purpose to putting a father through cancer, a mother through the suicide of a child, whole countries through famine or war is just, well, unfathomable and, frankly, cruel.
But back to the asker’s question: Where do you find comfort in times of suffering if you don’t believe the suffering has a greater purpose? My comfort comes from three sources.
First, I ascribe to this Buddhist view: life is suffering. That’s not a miserable thought designed to depress and defeat but rather a reminder that feeling unsatisfied—suffering—is reality. We all feel pain and distress, making the Buddhist view a realistic look at the world. We come into the imperfect world with our imperfect selves and, to no surprise, live imperfect lives. The Buddhist answer to this suffering is to embrace impermanence and to avoid attachment to what is and to what we wish could be.
Am I good at this? Not really, but remembering that life happens—that suffering and discomfort are part of life—helps me out when I’m uncomfortable with a twist life’s thrown me. Sure, I try to control what I can. I get my flu shots, wear my seat belt, know where my kids are, save for a rainy day, and otherwise take the precautions I can against the ways of the universe and the wiles of human nature. But in the end, I work hard to remember that control only gets me so far and so safe and that I can’t protect everyone within my reach. There is comfort in knowing my limits, differentiating what is my responsibility from what is beyond my grasp.
My second source of solace in calamity is knowledge. Taking comfort in fact, in science, in knowing brings me to peace about some of the suffering life passes my way. Comprehending more about the way the world works helps me ascribe cause where there is cause and ponder where there isn’t. Understanding probability and what randomness truly is removes a good deal of finger-pointing at what is fair and what is not. Storms and sickness know no “fair.” Sure, where you live and your behaviors may move you closer to hurricanes or further from heart disease, but “fairness” suggests an outside arbiter, making decisions about where to place that maelstrom or blood clot. That would be unfair. And cruel. I’ll take comfort in the equanimity of randomness, thank you.
There are, of course, events that are unfair and not random. War. Famine. Terrorist attacks. I’ve been spared these traumas, and I’m grateful. They do confound and pain me, but I don’t question their purpose in the greater scheme of things. They have causes, certainly, but that is quite different from purpose. As someone who has only observed these through the newspaper, radio, and TV, I simply don’t know how I would find comfort through them. But I’m fairly certain searching for purpose in the purposeless wouldn’t help me.
My third source of comfort in a world of suffering is my fellow travelers. I am not alone in my suffering. The travelers I know by name comfort me most often, with willing ears and caring words when I’m most troubled. Sharing suffering lightens me a bit, and when commiseration follows my sharing, I’m reminded that very few if any of our pains are unique. We all get sick, become disappointed, lose heart, lose love, lose sleep, lose hope, ponder the place we have in the world, and worry about those closest to us as well as those nameless ones thousands of miles away. So we don’t suffer alone even when we are alone. I’ve many times taken comfort in that reality. With seven billion other humans on the planet, I’m likely not the only one experiencing anything. And somehow that helps.
Years ago, when my beliefs included a God, I prayed when suffering or upon seeing another in distress. About a decade ago, I started questioning that process. My questions started with source and purpose: How could a relevant force in the world, greater than ourselves, omnipotent and omniscient, exist in the face of suffering? How could God desire—even demand—praise, petition, and thanksgiving while letting horrific happenings occur despite that praise, petition, and thanksgiving? And if God did none of that—if free will reigned and all hands are off—then what was the point of all that praying?
Thus the comfort of prayer and context of purpose gradually left. Losing that easy comfort in just the conversation with a source was initially both unnerving and liberating. It took time to find that a touch of Buddhist thought, knowledge, and companions could relieve some of the inevitable suffering of life. The truth is that I still find myself starting to pray at odd moments, stopping after the invocation of the divine. “Dear God,” I begin. And end. There just is no more comfort there.
So I sit, without a sense of a greater purpose to the rain that falls other than that rain falls. I’ve not been faced with the truly horrific, so one could say I’ve not been truly tested by suffering, but I’ve had my own traumas in my forty-four years. In the past decade or so, I’ve met with greater adversity than in the previous three combined, and yet, finding comfort has been far easier. I don’t ask the question of the greater purpose to suffering anymore. I suffer. I will continue to suffer. So will all others. With knowledge of this, a thirst for knowledge and appreciation of fact, and the community of seven billion with whom I hurl through space, I am comforted.
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (pages 23-25). This essay is adapted from a post at the author’s blog, Finding My Ground, September 26, 2014. Photo: Rain on a window © Eirik Solheim