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In his autobiography, Mark Twain describes how he received word, out of the blue, that his favorite daughter had died. “I was standing in our dining-room thinking of nothing in particular, when a cablegram was put into my hand. It said, ‘Susy was peacefully released today.’” The great humorist later wrote, “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.”
Susy, who, at the time of her death, was 24 years and 5 months old, had been, to her parents, “our wonder and our worship.” Twain went on living but never really recovered from the blow. He would spend years “trying to search out the hidden meanings of the deep things that make the puzzle and pathos of human existence”—to no avail, baffled and mocked by life’s cruelty.
Human life is suffused with pointless, undeserved suffering. No one ultimately escapes suffering that is unmerited, unwarranted, unearned, unjustified and unfair. Take one heartbreaking example: a young girl, named Ashley, who can’t “talk, walk, crawl, control her hands or legs, or use language whatsoever” who spends “her day slumped in her wheelchair, occasionally being fed, frequently screaming.”
Of course, not all suffering is pointless or inexplicable. There’s also the suffering that is systemic, structural and systematic. It grows out of racial resentment or gender bias or homophobia or class interest and is institutionalized in law, religion, educational practice and public policy.
All of us, some more than others, eventually experience wreck and ruin and a loss that is irrevocable and irretrievable. This is the sorrow, hurt, misery, woe and anguish that can’t be understood as part of a cosmic or divine plan or as punishment for a sin we committed. We grieve, we ache, we agonize, we writhe in pain, in vain, without the hope of an explanation or redemption.
I have written in the past about pain, tragedy and individual and collective acts of evil. Here, I want to write about a book that has been sorely neglected: Scott Samuelson’s Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. Samuelson, who teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa to “nurses, ex-cons, soldiers, aspiring chiropractors, social misfits and many others,” believes, “naively and correctly, that philosophy could make a difference in their lives.”
It was the experience of volunteering as a teacher at Oakdale Prison that inspired this book. Samuelson is no Pollyanna. However difficult or abusive their background, however unjustly they have been treated, many of the inmates he taught committed vicious, cruel, even sadistic acts of violence. And yet, these men do find some release, however temporary, by grappling with the toughest, most timeless philosophical and theological issue of all: Why do people suffer or die prematurely? Is there any point to people’s physical and emotional pain?
Many of literature’s greatest lines speak to suffering that is unearned. John Updike wrote about the futile attempts to “halt the flow of time.” In James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the protagonist says, “Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always, we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living.” Joan Didion wrote of the appeal of magical thinking in the midst of her own grief at the loss of her daughter and husband.
I, like you, have heard the clichés: that life is a gift and suffering is inherent to human life, that it provides regrettable though indispensable opportunities to build our souls, that the greatest works of art transmute sorrow, grief, misery and anguish into something greater, nobler and higher. Yet none of these platitudes or hackneyed phrases or truisms offers much comfort, solace, relief or succor in our moments of unbearable loss or agonizing pain.
Samuelson’s book looks at various ways that thinkers, poets, novelists and musicians—from Plato and Aristotle to Epictetus, Epicurus, Augustine, Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, Montaigne, Leibniz, Voltaire, Bentham, Mill, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, James, Weil, Arendt, Sartre, Solzhenitsyn, Rawls, Foucault, Singer and Nussbaum—reflected upon pointless suffering. In their writings we witness their intrepid attempts to answer the insuperable question: Is suffering something to be fixed or raged against or repaired, faced up to or denied, borne with dignity and grace, or transcended or transformed?
Even though the familiar texts, like the Book of Job and the Analects, are there, as are the canonical schools of thought including the Stoics, the Christian theodicy apologetics, the Utilitarians, the nihilistic and the amoralist, this book isn’t a systematic survey. It is instead a sensitive writer’s attempt to make sense of life’s arbitrariness, unfairness, misfortunes and heartbreaks and find ways to respond to life’s injustices and calamities and somehow move forward.
Samuelson argues that thinkers have adopted three characteristic responses to suffering: fix it, face it and forget about it, each of which has its strengths as well as limitations. His own perspective revolves around a paradox: that even though much suffering truly is pointless and awful, that humans often find meaning in wrestling with pointless suffering and that if suffering were eradicated, people’s lives would be less purposeful and emotionally rich. As an example, he devotes a chapter to the blues and the way that music acknowledges pain and transmutes it into art of the highest expressive order.
What, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with real life? Are these reflections of more than abstract or academic interest? Samuelson’s book’s answer is “yes,” and to that end, it devotes some attention to restorative justice as a way to strike a balance between the suffering that offenders cause and the need to acknowledge, atone and amend for those acts.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, the book does not look closely at how the health-care profession responds to physical and emotional suffering—an omission addressed by an essay by Arthur R. Frank, a medical sociologist emeritus at the University of Calgary. That essay makes two points that merit serious consideration:
- That calling suffering pointless is often mistaken. Whether or not suffering is pointless depends on one’s perspective. However unchosen by the victim, suffering often has a cause: the profit motive, circumscribed economic opportunities or social and cultural environments that contribute to loneliness and depression. Treating suffering as pointless is often a way to relieve the broader society of responsibility.
- That two approaches to suffering—the instrumental and the supportive—are at times at odds. As expert technicians, physicians’ bias is to treat and relieve suffering and, if possible, cure an underlying condition. But in their role as healers, doctors must also recognize when treatment is futile or will result in further complications. Then, their responsibility goes beyond treatment and is to help patients and their loved ones face up to wrenching realities and help make “suffering ‘sufferable.’”
Wouldn’t our students benefit from just such an intense intellectual encounter with those who have reflected most intensely with suffering—not just authors, but artists, musicians, physicians, psychologists and theologians? We live in a historical moment—a Durkheimian moment—when anomie, alienation, depression and disconnection are prevalent; when deaths by despair and mass shootings can’t be understood apart from the many individuals, overwhelmingly male, who are devoid of close friendships, strong family ties, deep community attachments and meaningful work.
Might not an approach like Samuelson’s be an ideal way to instill those qualities and coping skills that life demands: resilience, grit, empathy, compassion, but also tenacity, toughness and a sense of agency?
Let me ask: Are we teaching the courses our students need or the classes we want? I fear the answer is the latter, especially in the humanities.
It may well be true that any topic, if treated through a wide-angled lens, can be deeply meaningful. But when I look at the course offerings where I’ve taught, the titles and subject matter in fact reflects inertia, tradition and faculty interests, without much self-conscious reconsideration of how they contribute to a life well lived.
Does your department carefully sequence classes, or does it, for the most part, offer a variety of survey courses and various subsurveys? Are your advanced classes truly advanced or simply narrow?
When I think of the kinds of departmental and interdisciplinary classes that would most help my students as they enter adulthood, a course that wrestled with suffering strikes me as ideal. But in addition to approaching the topic from an artistic, literary, philosophical and theological lens, such a course or course cluster should look at the topic from the perspective of law, public policy and sociology.
Even though all people suffer, some suffer more often as a result of the deep inequalities rooted in socioeconomic class and the profound inequities embedded in our systems of criminal justice, education, health care and housing.
In his eulogy for three of the four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair and Cynthia Diane Wesley—who were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the redemptive power of unmerited suffering. Those girls—unoffending and utterly innocent—“died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
“They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Nothing, Dr. King acknowledged, could soothe the inconsolable grief of the bereaved families, except perhaps this thought: “You do not walk alone.” For suffering, he said, comes to the innocent and the guilty, the rich and the poor. Suffering is the irreducible common denominator for us all.
Samuelson’s heartrending book concludes with an idea that may offer scant comfort to those in the midst of life’s most unbearable suffering but that speaks a truth that our students need to hear. Suffering reveals our shared humanity, our need for each other’s support and for ritual and the consolations of art as we navigate life’s vale of tears. Dr. King had it right: we mustn’t walk alone.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.