Pain AND Suffering?

Here’s some news you can use: Suffering is an unnecessary personal choice.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was walking across the road in front of my house. I was most of the way across and in plain sight, so I wasn’t worried about the car coming up the hill at about 55. I should have been. I remember how I thought at the last fraction of a second, when it was too late to run or jump away: Holy shit, I’m gonna get nailed.

A second or two later, lying on the ground some distance from the point of impact, I thought, Well, it’s been a good run. I’ve always wondered what dying would be like. I’ll finally get to see what it’s like on the other side.

The doctors guessed that I had a 50-50 chance of survival. I was too drugged up to speak coherently, but inside, I was saying You’re crazy. Of course I’m going to live.

They stopped counting fractures after around 15, and their next guess was that I’d never walk again. I was dressed in plaster for months.

I’ve heard that you don’t remember pain. Some of you may know that yes, you do, if it’s really deep. One of my most vivid memories as a guest of the local hospital is the pain. It surprised me and taught me about myself. I had no idea that pain can be so sharp and all-consuming that it blows right past nauseating to hallucinogenic. The light show that played in my head was spectacular, and a tiny corner of my brain was actually fascinated by that.

The pain was also my friend. Considering my injuries, a lack of pain would have told me I had crossed over to the Wild Blue Wonder, to borrow a Walt Kelly phrase. But every morning, I awoke to that familiar, roaring pain, which told me I was still alive.

So I can claim to have learned something about pain and suffering, and what I’ve learned informs my reaction to the Exodus episode where Moses loses patience with his wandering, whining people. I have great sympathy for Moses, but most of us are more like the horde of escaped slaves who followed him.

The people of Israel were suffering. Here they were, in the Sinai Desert, not much better prepared for these conditions than if they were the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Listen to them: “Give us water, that we may drink! …For-what-reason then did you bring us up from Egypt, to bring death to me, to my children and to my livestock by thirst?” (I’m quoting a 30-year-old Jewish translation by Everett Fox, called The Five Books of Moses.) In the next verse, “Moshe cried out to YHWH, saying: What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!”

As I see it, everybody was equally thirsty — I can’t imagine Moses hoarding water for himself — but I submit that the people suffered, and Moses did not. His thirst was as painful as anyone else’s, but he didn’t suffer, and that gave him power as a leader and favor before God. I want to explain that. It applies to us in a very practical way.

In 2008, two books came out that I’m arrogant enough to think I don’t have to read. One, by Bart Ehrman, is God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. I nominate it as the decade’s most misdirected thesis, and I’ll get back to it.

The other is The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Meaning, by Peter Trachtenberg. His five questions are

“1. Why me?

2. How do I endure?

3. What is just?

4. What does my suffering say about me? And what does it say about God?

5. What do I owe to those who suffer?”

First, let’s get it straight: Pain is inevitable; suffering is voluntary. I like to think that’s one of the most important sentences I’ve ever written: Pain is inevitable; suffering is voluntary. I learned that in the hospital, through several orthopedic operations, excruciating and continuing physical therapy, treatment for PTSD, and 14 years of walking with a cane. A painful lesson.

Bart Ehrman, in his title, calls suffering God’s problem. I respectfully disagree. It’s no more God’s problem than climate change and racism. Problems for God to grieve, maybe, but they are of our making and ours to deal with.

Ehrman can’t find a Biblical justification for suffering and calls this God’s problem, too. He’d have an interesting point if the Bible were written by God, but sorry, Professor, it was written by people. They may have written under divine inspiration (however we, or they may define that), but would the Bible’s contradictions, hatreds, and magical thinking appear in what’s believed by some to be a perfect work written by a perfect God?

So Dr. Ehrman’s false premise takes him down. I felt no need to buy his book.

Peter Trachtenberg’s five questions obligingly provide a plan for my attack. His first, “Why me?”, lays open his side and exposes his vitals.

First, let’s stipulate that pain happens. Life is difficult and can be full of pain. Like death, that’s a fact of life. To fully live, we must learn to accept the facts of life, let them move through us, and let them make us stronger. You know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Suffering, however, is a “why me” condition. That’s almost the definition of suffering. “Why me” is about self-pity and opens wide the way to superstition. “Why me” is the thirsty Israelites’ attitude, and the attitude Job’s so-called friends tried to get him to adopt. They tell Job he must have done something bad to deserve all this bad luck. But Job refuses to drink the Kool-Aid. He refuses his friends’ clear implication that God could be so petty and small-minded as to play tit for tat.

“Why me” is an immature reaction. The undeveloped personality takes pain personally and believes that the accident was an event actually intended to hurt him or her, and no one else. Self-centeredness is a natural part of being a child. The childish, self-centered person will moan, “Nobody knows, nobody knows,” advertising his or her suffering with a perverse pride and wearing it like a badge.

The grownup says, “Why not me? Shit happens”, accepts the pain, and works through it.

No, that’s not easy, but that’s how to endure. Pain happens. It’s treatable. Even if it’s life-long, it can move aside, if not away, with the help of good medication and mental training. The grownup knows the pain isn’t some horrible gift just for him or her, and refuses to be consumed by suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is voluntary, and really, what sane person volunteers to suffer?

Choosing to suffer, then, says to the world that you have a lot of growing up to do, and that your God is a primitive deity that has the time to give you sustained misery because, say, you spread private information. Your God probably needs burnt offerings, or good luck rituals.

Job knew his bad luck was unjust, and he refused to blame God for it. And it looks as if he did have moments of suffering, at least by our standards, what with his sackcloth and ashes, and wishing he had never been born.

But who would want to wear clothes when covered with running sores? Back then, all cloth was hand made, so clothing was much more expensive than ours. To keep from ruining good clothes, a hunk of relatively cheap sackcloth around his waist would maintain modesty and probably be more comfortable. And the ashes would stanch the flow from the boils and sores. So sackcloth and ashes may not signify self-pity, and Job may not have chosen suffering.

He certainly chose to endure. He never lost his faith, and this faith won against the mere belief of his three friends, for belief is blind, childish, and unthinking, while faith allows room for doubt and growth. In this psychologically sophisticated story, Job is the only grownup in the room.

We all experience pain, and to endure it, we must refuse to suffer. Acknowledge the pain without fear; feel it fully, let it pass through you, or pass through it, and come out the other side. Sooner or later, you will. Don’t stop and suffer. To suffer is to take up residence in the pain and take perverse pride in feeling worse than those around you. It’s related to clinical depression, in which the pit of darkness seems preferable to the effort of climbing out.

Of course, it’s not fair. Pain knows no justice. The brilliant author of Job teaches us that. Life is difficult and painful. Accept that and learn not to suffer, and you will enjoy this precious life at a much higher level, with real power.

Since suffering is the mark of a person who hasn’t learned that it’s optional, we must give them what children of any age need: a gentle hand, sympathy, and assurance that you’re there to help them get past this.

Montaigne said that one who fears suffering already suffers from what he fears. Wow. Yes. The sobbing child with the bleeding knee cries not just from the pain but even more from fear that the pain won’t stop, or that the bleeding won’t stop. We all need to learn that life is full of scraped knees and crushed hearts. Knowing that the pain, though sharp, will dull in time gives us enormous assurance and power. We don’t need to suffer. That’s a choice.

Moses teaches us this, as do Job, and, of course, Jesus. Each of us carries God within us, and even if you’re a Muslim, a Jew, or a None of the Above, Jesus showed how to acknowledge the pain fully and use the holy spirit we all possess to feel it, share it, even scream, but never to lose faith or wallow in self-pity. I understand what we mean when we say he suffered on the cross. That method of execution is extremely cruel and sadistic. But that’s the official language. Strictly speaking, I don’t think he sank into suffering. The church’s “He suffered and was buried,” for me, is more accurately “He was tortured and buried.” As he hung there in agony, he remained lucid and never asked Why me. He knew he embodied Why not me. As an example, he set the bar really high, and we have just one lifetime to try to learn to follow it.

Step one, remember: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. We have a choice.

Oh yeah. Be nice to people and other life forms, too. But I thought you knew that was part of the deal.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans