Suffering and the need for a good story

A few years ago, one of the big things that stopped me believing in an underlying purpose and intention in our existence (i.e. that the universe was created by some kind of a god) had to do with suffering. I’ve been watching a lot of nature documentaries lately, and I’m struck by the way life seems always on the brink, always fighting for survival. Starvation, drought, freezing, predation – these are just normal features of life in the natural world; always there. They have driven our evolution. And questions come up all over again. Does the beauty and complexity of life justify its generation through these often violent processes? Is this the best of all possible worlds, or can I imagine a better one?

When I was discussing meditation here recently, I definitely didn’t like the idea of becoming neutral to everything through some kind of cessation of judgements. This did make me stop and think about whether, on some level, I like the world as it is – good and bad and all. Why do I prefer to alleviate suffering rather than become immune to it? – what’s the difference?

Of course, even without an ultimate meaning to grasp, we do find meaning in the struggle, the drama, the (hopefully) upward trajectory of our life’s narratives. We wouldn’t want to be neutral, and we wouldn’t even really want to be happy all the time. I guess, if life is always on the brink and fighting for survival, we’re probably adapted to find meaning in this struggle.

But where does morality fit in? Isn’t it still kind of cruel to see meaning and goodness in this system of life in which creatures suffer great cruelty at the hands of each other and the environment? That’s my problem with God, after all – he created it and called it “good”. And I’m not convinced that it is, wholly.

Yes, our capacity to find positive meaning in hardship seems quite large, but not limitless. I’m just not sure that suffering can always result in some greater good. Marian Keyes, after three years of intense suffering, says, “I don’t feel like a ‘better’ person. I don’t feel stronger or more enlightened. I used to think what doesn’t kill you makes you funnier: I now believe what doesn’t kill you makes you — gasp! — weaker.”

Without a creator or designer, though, the emergent morality could be seen as a key player in this animal struggle. A hero, even. By acting against suffering where it can, it defines a nobler, kinder progress than the soulless goal of increasing genetic fitness. But it doesn’t stop there. Finding a deeper meaning and a broader, less black-and-white perspective on suffering – ditching childish ideas for more reasoned ones – is actually part of this battle we’re winning, too. Morality can be deep enough to consider that even pain and hardship can sometimes achieve a more desirable outcome than its immediate relief would. Without having to go as far as saying that this is always the case, or that God must somehow know best. 

I feel this is quite a good story to live by, even if there isn’t necessarily a happy ending.

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This entry was posted in absolute goodness, God, morality, myth and metaphor, personal reflection, philosophy, science, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Suffering and the need for a good story

  1. Lisa says:

    Very thought provoking. Following your blog now 🙂

  2. Marahm says:

    Have you read the work of Victor Frankl, specifically, From Death Camp to Existentialism?

  3. Frank Salyers says:

    You are an amazing writer with great insight….I agree that suffering makes us weaker….I believe that is the point…..we must then reach out to someone or something stronger….preparing us all to reach out and ultimately find God. I know that is a bumper sticker answer.. it always helps to be preceded by the angst and provoking thoughts that artistic writers such as yourself provide. Suffering of the innocent seems unbearably cruel and unjustifiable by any concept of a loving and personal God….until you look at the cross.There you see unbearable and unjustifiable suffering of His Son. It is only when we get to the cross that we see resolution of the story….he is going to make everything all right. To those with the greater innocent, unbearable and unjustifiable suffering. The greater the reward.

  4. Frank Salyers says:

    …I meant to say…it is only when we get to the “resurrection” that we find resolution to the story…Selah!

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