Out of Control

The Meaning of Suffering

In a recent New York Times column (“A Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit,” February 5), Jane E. Brody argued the case for suicide. In an earlier column, she wrote about preventing geriatric suicide. In response, she received a letter from a woman in her nineties who was not depressed but simply tired of suffering and wanted to die. Brody asks, “What is the point of living so long if you can no longer enjoy living? What is the point of living until your mind turns to marshmallow and you are reduced to an existence that is less than human?” This question, she says, “cannot be lightly dismissed”—and it should not be.

Years ago I read an interview with Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Stout was a Quaker, an old man, and tired of living. He said something to the effect that he would like to kill himself, not because he was depressed, but simply because he was tired of living. He didn’t do so, he said, because people he loved would not understand it.

As a pastor I have seen people whose lives really were at the far end of what most people would consider tolerable agony, if you can speak of such a thing. We shouldn’t assume that people who want to die are depressed, though many of them may be. The question here is suffering itself, and what it means to be human within the context of suffering. To speak of an existence that is “less than human” is to claim to know more than we can know.

This is where the culture wars really begin to show themselves. Christianity sees the Cross as a sign of what it means to live on this side of death, and the resurrection we hope for. Buddhism speaks of existence as suffering. There is an inevitability here, something tragic built into being—to live is to suffer, and finally to die. Secular understandings of suffering move naturally toward control: How can we prevent or lessen it? This is reasonable enough, but then comes another question: How can we be in charge of all those aspects of our existence that we can control, given the fact that there are some aspects we cannot control? While I understand the desire for control in the face of suffering, there is in this desire a dismissal of some important human depths, and the absence of any sense of the fullness of life as a mystery—not in the usual sense of mystery as something difficult if not impossible to understand, but rather in the sense of mysterion, the sacramental gift.

It isn’t just a question of finding, for example, a mystery in what we see at the level of the embryo, the beginning of life. It is crass to see nothing there but the beginning of cell division, without considering what this tiny being, unique in the history of the universe, is becoming. The mystery is about more than this: it has to do with our own experience of being. If we see our selves as a kind of property we have a right to control, rather than as a gift that has an infinite depth we are meant to experience—to the extent that we can—we will make a radically different set of decisions when our being is threatened with suffering, or with anything that challenges our sense of autonomy.

There are times in silence when joy rises and you know deep places that are ordinarily hidden; and there are other times when there is nothing, a desert beneath the desert, sheer blank. But there is always something more—a call, I think, to go more deeply into this moment, however painful or seemingly empty it may feel to us. We may not ignore or avoid it, or pretend that our work here is only for ourselves, for our comfort. Our pain in suffering and dying is not simply a problem to be relieved but a sign of the kind of world we live in, either a world that ends in, and is ultimately about, the betrayal of our hope; or a world that is about the hope that transcends this suffering and limitation.

I have heard that when the great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan was dying he said, “If Christ is risen, then nothing else matters.” Then, after a pause, he said, “And if Christ is not risen, then nothing else matters.”

The choice is between hope and hopelessness, and while Christianity is not the only tradition to understand that our lives are grounded in a mystery we are meant to live, that they are not a form of property, the end of the secular desire to control our lives completely is a surrender to despair. It says that the only meaning to be found anywhere is what we can grasp in this moment, what we can understand and appreciate now, and the rest is meaningless. Perhaps what makes this trend in our culture so disheartening is that it does not recognize how empty and nihilistic it is, seeing in the right to suicide a form of freedom.

Published in the 2008-03-14 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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