Suffering and meaning

The last entry touched upon weaknesses in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: not so much his opposition to scientism but his broad reaction to contemporary institutions and ideas without any historical consideration of how they got the way they are, no apparent interest in the sources of the modern and postmodern world views that he dislikes. As a long-time proponent of the perennial view of religious values, Smith vigorously defends perennial thought, but he targets the wrong issues.

For all that, Smith concludes, endearingly, about deciding between the theist (“There is one God”) Beatific Vision and the mystic (“There is only God”) union. He quotes Ramakrishna: “I want to taste sugar, not be sugar.” Smith muses that, after all, there will come a time when everyone will have forgotten Huston Smith, and he will feel like packing it all up. That’s where the mystical alternative will be available.

Smith’s journey has been a rather long one from the dubious days in the early sixties when he invested credence in entheogenic drugs such as mescaline and ayahuasca and later (like Aldous Huxley) became a staunch advocate of perennial philosophy. The perennial seeks to salvage the best of each religion and identify their trajectories as the same or similar enough to be tolerated and respected. This view edges close to assuming that content is the same, and one or another religion is the same, at least in good will and spiritual configuration.

Perhaps a broad similarity of teleology among the world’s religions is as far as anyone can take the pursuit of truth, but the view has the unintended consequence of relativizing the social and material conditions that give rise to particular religious forms — exactly the error that Smith makes in his arguments against scientism. Moreover, the relativizing affects the beliefs themselves, conflating the personalities of prophets and founders, or of ceremonies and sounds. Smith’s wrong path would be in blaming scientism for loss of the traditional view, but the traditional view came about under specific circumstances, and is hard to retain intact over centuries of change, especially recent centuries. Postmoderns point this out. Science is not alone in the flow of ideas in this process of cultural and societal change. The error is in not seeing the whole context of society, culture, and expression that engenders the particular religion — and science, too.

John Horgan, in his book Rational Mysticism, spends his first chapters discussing Huston Smith, postmodernism and mysticism. The postmodern distrusts both the traditional worldview and modern optimism. It deconstructs experience in order to identify the roots of institutions and finds the beginning of the trajectory to what has happened up to today. Nietzsche foreshadowed this work in his Genealogy of Morals, tracing back in time and history what culture presents rather than accepting culture’s definitions, which are themselves products of culture’s elites. With postmodernism, one is still working with culture’s elites, of course. The postmodern edginess may seem like an academic exercise, a chess game back at the faculty club, not always a real encounter with society. But how else can we understand why things change and why they benefit the powerful?

Another journalist, Peter Trachtenberg in his book The Book of Calamities, is compelling, evocative, and thoughtful. His subtitle is “Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning.” Such an angle can take in traditional to postmodern views while keeping a strong hold on the real issue: suffering. Whether one finds solace — read “meaning” — in the traditional view (suffering as punishment, karma, divine mystery) or the postmodern view (the absurd, chaos, chance, mystery), the modern view of infinite progress and optimism is largely unmasked.

Trachtenberg offers a compilation of anecdotes intermingled with reflections. His first-hand experiences drive the authenticity of the questions. He personally spoke with genocide victims in Rwanda, tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, an innocent man on Texas death row, twin sisters suffering from a rare skin disorder that would kill them at 27, Vietnam War veterans still unhealed from war trauma, a female colleague at the office dying of cancer, the Andrea Yates prosecutor, and a blustery failed writer who never gets around to organizing his life or ambitions and kills himself.

Trachtenberg downplays his own 20-year long heroin addiction, now that he is clean. And along the way, he dips into the significance of suffering in the classic texts: Gilgamesh, Job, Oedipus, Polycarp (the prototype early Christian martyr), Buddha, Boethius, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil.

The questions are “Why me?” “How Do I Endure?” “What is Just?” “What Does MY Suffering Say About Me? … About God?” and “What Do I Owe Those Who Suffer?” There are no concrete answers, of course, no satisfying insights, but a panoply to awaken our sensitivities. Suffering as punishment or as nature makes for psychological sleights-of-hand, but the reign of chaos over order is so unrelenting in the world that the questions become rhetorical or unspoken. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist in the Nazi death camps, found himself grasping for bits of pleasure (the recalled passages of a scholarly paper or the lucky bottom scraps of a pot of soup with a few peas in it) — these gave not so much pleasure as meaning. Simone Weil fasted in solidarity with those who suffered, and probably died from it. Boethius found himself imprisoned by those he had loyally served, and spun out his essay “On Consolation” in order to grasp for stability, no longer concerned about vindicating himself, any more than Job did, who was feisty enough to argue with God but then just gave it up, as if to answer “whatever,” still clearly unsatisfied with the idea that suffering is simply a mystery to be endured, as Yahweh insisted.

And so we look outside of ourselves, and shake our heads at the world’s penchant for increasing the suffering of others; we look within our societies and communities and see self-destruction in the habits of all from the simple-minded to the wealthy around us. The Buddha’s image of a wheel is appropriate: one must stop the wheel from turning, that’s all. But suffering makes the wheel go on without us, without our intentionality, our good will, our hopes — and one ends up suffering mentally, on behalf of others, within. The wheel turns, and who is available to stop it? Where the modern was optimistic, the postmodern is not — the traditional world view fluctuated between optimism and pessimism because it could not fathom the mystery, lacking the consciousness of what has unfolded as history. But consciousness does not spell insight, and we are left blind to meaning, unless we consume ourselves with some social task to accomplish, a fatal activism — or turn to solitude.

Solitude tries to rescue the only self that it can reach, the only self that can be worked on. The bodhisattva image, so persuasive in masters from Shantideva to Bassui, does not relieve suffering as such, only the mind, so that suffering does not dominate our thoughts, our senses, our cells. That is a half measure. One lifetime is not enough to work on that many souls, barely enough time to work on oneself. No, there just isn’t enough time, let alone energy. We are left quite alone in the work of fathoming that still point that mysticism is fond of, that point so lofty and sublime that suffering is viewed as simply change and randomness that we look at as if from afar rather than felt as real pain.