Suffering is God’s Mother, and pain – His Father. There isn’t a living being on this planet that hasn’t been exposed to suffering in some capacity. You can see it in the faces of your closest friends and relatives, as well as find it’s stain on almost every form of artistic expression. Many outlets have been explored to express and convey these constructs in terms that we can understand, but few provide any comfort or solace. Pain and suffering, whether emotional or physical, are core components in defining who we are as sentient beings.
There is no universally accepted definition or measurement that can properly quantify suffering. Each of us experiences our lives in different ways and to varying degrees. The one truth that can be agreed upon is that we are all subject to differing emotional states and in turn react differently based upon the situations we encounter. The true role of suffering in our lives is to bring meaning to happiness. Our emotions are complimentary and blend together in order to give the others meaning. They form a pallet of color that extends far beyond the eye’s perception. Yet we can “see” when someone is in pain and most of us can “feel” when someone we are close to is suffering. It is the very intangibility of these ideas that give them their greatest power. But it isn’t until we’ve lived these immense forces do we come to any semblance of understanding their great power over who we are, and more importantly, who we can be.
When I was 11 years old my parents sat my brother and me down to try and explain the reasons leading to their separation. When I turned 12 my father sat us both down again to tell us he was moving to California. After I turned 13 I sat with my brother once more as we listened to my Mother tell us that our Father was dead and we would never see him again. I will never forget how that affected me. However, I’ll never be able to know how it truly affected my brother. These experiences, while traumatic, encapsulate a constant reminder that I should cherish any and all fleeting moments of happiness because suffering is always right around the corner. What doesn’t kill us truly does makes us stronger.
Since before recorded history we have strived to understand the world around us. Our inability to explain pain and suffering, as well as happiness and joy, gave rise to the belief in a supreme being that must be responsible for the good and the bad things that happen to us. Otherwise what could possibly be the point? While this belief could be and probably is misguided it has nevertheless served as a blanket protecting us from the cold truth of a world and reality that rarely, if ever makes sense. The entirety of existence marches on around us like the Earth around the Sun flowing constantly from birth to death; whether we choose to accept the inevitability of suffering and pain in our daily lives is directly correlated to the people we are and the person we will become.
In the story Sonny’s Blues the author James Baldwin explores the depths of suffering through the lives of the citizens of Harlem during the first half of the 20th century. The plot follows two brothers who lead very different lives shaped by their individual experiences with pain and suffering. The older brother, a US Army World War II veteran, carries his suffering around like a medal awarded for bravery that is now a weight tethering him to the darkness that imprisoned his Mother and Father before him. While his younger brother, a Jazz musician and recovering heroin addict locked his suffering away deep inside until it melted away a significant portion of his adult life. Yet a glaring example of the correlated positive force in their shared suffering can clearly be seen in the death of the older brother’s youngest daughter. It was in her death, and her suffering that her Father found the courage to reach out to his younger brother and finally make the connection they both so desperately needed, but could never solidify on their own. In the closing paragraphs of the story, the elder brother joins Sonny at a club to listen, for the first time, to the music upon which his brother pins all of his pain and sorrow. In the melodies of his brother’s pain he understands that listening to our sorrow is how we acknowledge the coming of our eventual happiness and content.
Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer, attempted to create a complete utilitarian code of law. According to his 1789 work titled Principles of Morals and Legislation: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think…”. His student John Stuart Mill later expanded upon his work. Mill built upon the teachings of Bentham to formulate what he called the “greatest happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, within reason. It is within these ideas that we can clearly see that happiness and joy and pain and suffering are inextricably linked and by ignoring one you ignore them all. And in so doing you are denying what you can be, denying what you are supposed to be.
Pain and suffering truly are the core components in defining who we are as members of a universal community so far beyond our comprehension that the very idea shadows the concepts we are constantly trying to grab a hold of. You can see it in our literature and in our art. You can read it on the faces of the good and the faces of the evil. You can feel it in your own soul. It cannot be quantified in ritualistic belief systems. It cannot be escaped because it is inside each and every one of us. Pain and suffering mold the context that brings meaning to our lives. It doesn’t just ring true today; it always has been and always will be.