by CSW Director Rob Field
The suffering of the world is hard to avoid these days. Even when I try my best to look away, I can still feel it. My sense of sadness, grief, and anxiety is mirrored by someone on the other side of our planet. Because we are all deeply connected (in ways that only mystics and students of quantum physics seem to comprehend), suffering is not confined to a single geographic location. Even if I’d prefer to think the despair and anguish of people in Gaza, Israel, and Ukraine will never move beyond their borders, my heart knows that’s not true.
We should not ask “for whom the bell tolls,” says the great English poet John Donne. “It tolls for thee.” Donne explains that no one is an island, and all are part of a common human continent (see “For Whom the Bell Tolls”). Meanwhile, we are here, sharing one planet for a brief time, to serve as companions to each other. The world’s great religions remind us that, whenever possible, we’re here to relieve one another’s suffering.
This season of early winter always points me to a deeper question: Why is there so much suffering, and is there any meaning behind it? Again, the great religious and spiritual traditions offer us partial answers. One response is that we humans are frequently responsible for our own suffering (and often the pain of others), due to familiar vices like ignorance, greed, the lust for power, and hatred. When it comes to a search for meaning behind suffering, the verdict is mixed. Some traditions tend to speak of suffering as “part of the deal” for mortal beings. Hindus and Buddhists, for example, tell us that suffering is part of samsara, the cycle of existence. They recommend specific practices to help us navigate suffering and move towards liberation.
The monotheistic traditions point us to the possibility of suffering redeemed by God through a variety of practices and teachings. Although I have never found a completely satisfying answer, here’s the one I keep returning to: free will is not an illusion. We humans are free to choose the good, which means we are also capable of choosing the opposite. A world without free will would make human life as we know it impossible. If wrongdoing is yin, goodness is yang. For reasons most of us cannot comprehend, the two are bound to each other — inseparable, at least, on this side of the veil between mortality and eternity.
In the end, I believe some kind of cosmic redemption is possible, although the specifics are a total mystery. If one option is to conclude the world’s suffering is evidence of a death rattle — an impending collapse or apocalypse, I choose a different vision. A sacred text from my own tradition makes an astonishing claim: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to [what is] about to be revealed,” wrote Paul the Apostle in his Letter to the Romans. He goes on to say that creation and all beings “will be set free” from bondage, and that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” (see chapter 8).
As one year draws to a close as another is about to begin, let’s help each other stay awake. That way, we can wait with some measure of hope for the new thing that wants to be born from the labor pains of our beautiful-and-also-suffering world.