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Commentary: On suffering, finding meaning, divine love and eternal life
Commuters wear masks and face shields as they ride a jeepney in Manila on January 14, 2021.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman

Commentary: On suffering, finding meaning, divine love and eternal life

Jove Jim Aguas (Philstar.com) - February 14, 2021 - 2:55pm

MANILA, Philippines — The pandemic, the EJK, and the natural calamities that we experienced have put human suffering in our collective consciousness.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic human experiences is suffering. We often associate suffering with misery, pain, loneliness, and even evil, but the mystery of suffering goes beyond its cause or reason because it touches on the very meaning of suffering, especially when we consider the suffering of the innocent. 

St. John Paul II in "Salvifici Doloris" writes: “In whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man’s earthly existence.” Indeed, suffering is part of our human existence, and there is no escaping it in this temporal life.

Suffering is as much of a part of human existence as death. The moment we are born, we are bound to suffer and then die. We experience pain, illness, disability, hunger, poverty, grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, self-pity, and death. We witness the mass execution of innocent people, the unimaginable toll of natural calamities on communities, and the poverty and hunger of the poor, to name a few examples of mass suffering. 

It reminds us of the Buddhist First Noble Truth, which states that there is suffering, human existence is suffering.

According to the Buddha, suffering comes in many forms. Three obvious kinds of suffering correspond to the first three sights the Buddha saw on his first journey outside his palace: old age, sickness, and death. However, according to the Buddha, the problem of suffering goes much deeper.

Life is far from ideal and comfortable; it frequently fails to live up to our expectations. Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, and more often, we desire the things of this world. However, even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last, or if it does, it becomes monotonous.

Even when we do not suffer from external causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled and unsatisfied. This is the truth of suffering; it is connected to our desires, according to the Buddha

It is only in death that we are able to free ourselves from suffering. Death offers us escape. Death, however, while something that is inevitable to happen, is not an option, escape is not an option. We continue living despite the suffering and miseries.

However, given that we cannot escape suffering in this life, does it mean that our life with all its pains and miseries is a wasted and meaningless existence? How do we make sense of this suffering, especially of those seemingly senseless suffering of people most of which were inflicted by his fellow human beings – like the violence committed against the lowly and poor, the injustices against the perceived enemies of the state, or the senseless killing of the innocents or the miseries of a family who lost a loved one during this pandemic, or the suffering of the victims of conflicts and wars?

When we encounter or experience this senseless suffering, we ask, what is the meaning of all this? Moreover, the more we ask, we seem to be resigned to the silence that confronts us, a silence that seems to tell us there is no answer to our question. The choice is between resignation or willing ourselves to find meaning out of such a desperate and miserable situation.  

In "Mans’ Search for Meaning", Viktor Frankl describes that suffering is a potential springboard for having a need for meaning and finding it. He writes: “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Frankl, who was himself a victim of the Holocaust and survived four different concentration camps in Nazi Germany, further writes: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering, he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”

In his "Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning", Frankl expressed optimism to life. He writes, “… there must be a meaning to life under any conditions, even the worst conceivable ones. But how shall we explain this finding which so much contradicts the ubiquitous feeling of meaninglessness?”

According to Frankl, if we investigate how the man on the street goes about finding meaning, it turns out that three avenues lead up to meaning fulfillment. First, doing a deed or creating a work; second, experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love.” 

However, the most important is the third avenue; “when facing a fate we cannot change, we are all called upon to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves, in a word changing ourselves.”

This is true even for the ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt, and death. In these circumstances, we turn suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; we derived from guilt the opportunity to change for the better, and we see in life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

However, in the face of seemingly meaningless suffering, finding meaning is almost impossible. Imagine, for example, losing loved ones in a brutal anti-drug campaign or losing everything because of the successive calamities.

Frankl shared the story of a woman years after World War II who wore a bracelet of baby teeth mounted in gold. She was asked about it by a doctor, and she told him that those teeth belonged to her sons and daughters who were taken to the gas chambers and died during the Holocaust. Shocked, the doctor asked her how she could live with such a bracelet. She quietly replied that she is now in charge of an orphanage in Israel.

 Meaning may be found even in such unbearable suffering, which is why life remains potentially meaningful despite everything.  Of course, it does not mean that we need to suffer in order to find meaning.  This is only to say that meaning can still be found in the face of unavoidable and seemingly meaningless suffering.

When we think of our suffering here, we cannot but focus on the meaning that is beyond this temporal existence – the ultimate meaning. This is what Frankl referred to as the meaning of the whole, the meaning of one’s life as a whole – along-range meaning. Every part of life, every experience, every encounter offers to some extent some meaning or carries with it a particular meaning.

However, when we look at our entire life, we can only comprehend its whole meaning at its end. The final meaning of life reveals itself at the very end. So when we start thinking about the overall meaning of life, the less comprehensible such meaning to us. Frankl said that the more comprehensive the meaning, the less comprehensible it is.

Thus, the ultimate meaning of one’s life is necessarily beyond comprehension. Regardless of whether we comprehend the over-all meaning of our own lives, there is always that “will to ultimate meaning.” And this will to ultimate meaning is connected to religious beliefs.  Frankl stressed that religion reveals itself as the fulfillment of the will to ultimate meaning.

For us Christians, our will for ultimate meaning is anchored on our faith, in our faith in God, and in His promise of eternal life. The unavoidability and seeming meaninglessness of our suffering here in this temporal life can only be given meaning when we relate our suffering to our faith in God and his promise of happiness in His Kingdom for eternity.

Suffering then becomes an opportunity for eternal happiness. Such seeming meaninglessness is, after all, the source of our salvation and happiness. However, how do we understand this somewhat mysterious meaning of suffering?

To be continued in the second part

Jove Jim S. Aguas is a faculty member of the Philosophy Department, and researcher at the Center for Research in Theology, Religious Studies, and Ethics at the University of Santo Tomas.

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