Saturday, March 1, 2008

Some thoughts on suffering and pain

Fred asks:

"Dcn Scott,

It may be helpful to define and distinguish pain and suffering. Pain is a defense of the body. Thus, the pain of a burn warns me to take my hand off of the stove. Someone who lacks the capacity for pain, for example with leprosy, must compensate with persistent vigilance.

The Buddhists are right that suffering comes from desire. The question is whether our desire for the ideal is true or deluded.

What do you think?"

In the first instance, I think your distinction is a most useful one because it brings some clarity to my previous post, which was a response to another question. I can certainly accept your definition of pain. In viewing the question from this angle, I think it necessary to also observe that pain and suffering have a causal nexus and that this nexus has inverse properties: pain causing suffering and suffering causing pain. There is being hungry and then there is suffering from hunger. A starving person is in physical pain for want of food. It is also true that s/he also suffers from hunger, not only for the need for food now as a matter of immediate survival, but for food security in the future.

Taking the Buddhistic route, insofar as I understand it, as I claim no expertise and have no wish to make a caricature of what others believe: if to live is suffer, to live is also to feel pain. To back-up just a bit, pain, at least as we have defined it, can be said to have (roughly) two causes: external (injury/hunger/disease) and internal (desire/angst). One answer to the problem of pain is Freudian: avoid pain and maximize pleasure. When exalted to being the governing principle of life, this makes a mockery of do good and avoid what is evil. Because, in certain circumstances, in both doing good and avoiding evil we suffer pain, the martyrs show us that living this principle for the sake of love can even be lethal. On my understanding, for the Buddhist, it is not a question of whether our desire is deluded because desire is to be overcome to point of the very annihilation of self. Again, as with the pain/pleasure principle, nothing could be more foreign to a Christian understanding of the role of suffering and/or pain. The goal of overcoming all desire strikes me as a rather inhuman response to human existence. For example, mon cher ami Camus' metaphysical revolt against human limitation is a very human, if not yet Christian, response to man's existential angst.

I also think you are correct in that the real question is whether or not we are clear about what we desire, with desire being a given and God-given, that is, a necessary part of being human, as well as a source of suffering. Desire is not only a source of suffering when misdirected, but even when accurately understood and properly directed. For us celini, we speak of the origin of the Movement as our dear Don Gius' being wounded by beauty when he was very young. Even in all this suffering, though unavoidable, still has no intrinsic value. Put simply, suffering, in order to have value, must be redeemed and understood in light of redemption. In this way suffering is not only soteriologically, but also dialectically, redeemed from the void. What is not God is brought by Christ into the very life of God, who brings life from death.

For me, when I become at least somewhat clear about what I desire, both its source and fulfillment, who, it turns out, is one and the same, by experientially encountering the One who reveals to me my desire precisely by showing me its, which is actually my, fulfillment, I also discover the truth about the human person. In a homily he gave in Munich, the Holy Father said: "Jesus wants to share with us his seeing God, his hearing the Father and his converse with him. The path upon which we set out at Baptism is meant to be a process of increasing development, by which we grow in the life of communion with God, and acquire a different way of looking at man and creation."

This realization, then, is liberation, which is brought about, sustained, and seeks an ever expanding communion, both in terms of depth and scope. This why, the Holy Father reminds us in this same homily that "[w]e impose our faith on no one. Such proselytism is contrary to Christianity. Faith can develop only in freedom. But we do appeal to the freedom of men and women to open their hearts to God, to seek him, to hear his voice". We do this confident in the truth expressed by the title of a hymn: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which goes,

Jesu, joy of man's desiring,
Holy Wisdom, Love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls, aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashion'd,
With the fire of life impassion'd,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying, round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings!
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Now, lest this all remain in the abstract, at the level of theory, or in the realm of navel gazing, there is still a vast terrain that we must negotiate between what we discuss in a context like this and the magnitude of suffering in the world. This vast terrain is what I made a very limited effort to address in my original post, prompted by Loxterkamp's review of Callahan's book, which I fully intend to read. There is a post from last summer in which I also dealt with this question: To love is to suffer, or passion=desire.

I presume the indulgence of being granted a personal aside due the fact that this humble blog is nothing if not a long, running (or even long running) personal aside. I have been able to include in these two posts two people, Albert Camus and Madeleine Delbrêl, about whom I find it très difficile to write. I find it hard because of their effect on my thinking and action, as well as their affect on me. Suffice it to say that my community of the heart has a large francophone contingent. I have hanging on this blog the draft of a post on dear Madeleine, which I began in August 2006, but her picture will suffice for now. For those who are completely unfamiliar with Delbrêl, the most ready-at-hand comparison is with Dorothy Day. A good introduction to her life and work is a book, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, published by Eerdmans in 2000. Though out-of-print, there are used copies in circulation.


  1. Fr. Giussani said that two great temptations of man are anarchy and pantheism. Both express powerful insights into reality without being the whole story. Buddhism also expresses a powerful insight into reality and for that reason it's worth it to risk the missteps of dialogue...

  2. Amen, both to the observation regarding the two great temptations and to the necessary risk of dialogue!


God's love for us is tireless

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34 No doubt you've heard the saying, "There's no rest for the wicked...