Simon Fowler's Blog

The problem of pain and its cure

Posted by Simon on March 31, 2010

There’s no ultimate escape from pain. Gautama Buddha observed the inexorability of suffering. Shakespeare, before we knew about evolution by natural selection, saw “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. It seems that suffering is at the heart of reality itself.

Even if we do escape it for a time, it just reappears in a different form. Or in a different person.

So our main problem, as M. Scott Peck observed years ago, is that we think having a problem is the problem. We think that pain and suffering and trouble and strife are bizarre and embarrassing abnormalities in an otherwise smooth and happy world.

The cure for that problem, dear readers, is courage and hope. And you’ll find courage and hope amongst the poor and those who work alongside the poor. You’ll also find it, in a very different way, amongst scientists, researchers and others who look at some of the world’s toughest problems straight in the face, day after day, year after year.

You may even find it in yourself. Courage and hope in the face of pain. Not looking away, not pretending it isn’t there. But also not letting it have the last word, as though it determines the course or value of your life.

The source of courage and reason for hope depends to some degree on personality and circumstance: personal failure, job loss, accident, cancer, depression, traumatic injury, poverty – all provide different possibilities of hope and will be reacted to differently by individuals.

But hope must not be confused with optimism: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” So describes the Stockdale Paradox.

I confess that I don’t totally understand it. I’ve not been in such a situation as to warrant knowing the difference. But I believe it, and I’ve witnessed it, amongst the poor and oppressed in El Salvador and in Burma; stories I may tell another time. I also see it exemplified, in fact, defined and extended, in the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth on the night before he was crucified.

On Maundy Thursday we Christians [must] remember with solemn humility that Jesus, knowing the betrayal, abandonment, suffering and death that was before him, did two amazing things. First he shared a last meal with his disciples, including his betrayer. Second, he washed their feet and told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” In the face of death, Jesus turned his suffering into an act of love and an exhortation to love. Suffering, it appears, is at the heart of love, which is ultimate reality.

It is important also to remember, and to contemplate this Maundy Thursday, that his suffering was only just beginning. Resurrection was far off, almost unseen, almost unbelievable. Instead, death and hell was before him. A long, long night, increasingly alone, increasingly in despair.

Jesus suffered alone for us, so that we would suffer with, (lit. have com – passion), others. Because we have a God who literally identifies with our suffering, we can and must bear each other’s sufferings. We must bear it, in all its hideous ugliness and persistence.

People you know, or you yourself, know that there are usually no quick solutions to suffering; no platitudes, optimistic statements, or symptom relief that will satisfy. More than anything, you want presence; simple, helpless, powerless, wordless, loving presence that won’t give up no matter how bad it gets or how long it lasts.

On this day then, let’s cure the ‘problem’ of pain by being willing to face suffering, with and for each other.

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