Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Making Meaning Out of the Bad Stuff that Happens in Life

Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to good people.

Some of this seems right and fair. It's great when good things happen to good people. This makes it easy to be happy with life and grateful to God. But occasionally things go awry. Bad things can happen to good people. This doesn't seem right or fair. When things go badly, it's easy to be unhappy with life and upset with God. How do we make sense of bad things happening?

Robert Mesle wrote a great article in "Creative Transformation" about making meaning out of the bad things that happen in life. It's called "Meaning and Suffering." Since, during Lent, we have been exploring the suffering of the cross and the suffering in our lives, we thought Mesle's article would be worth including in on that exploration. So here is the article in its entirety:

"Suffering and Meaning" - Robert Mesle

“Suffering is good for you,” said my Hindu friend, Mira, with a slightly joking smile. She had been suffering lately, and I knew that she was comforting herself as much as she was teasing me. “Sometimes,” I replied with a smile, “but only sometimes.”

The question I wanted to ask is: What problem are you trying to solve? If your goal is simply to endure suffering which you think you cannot escape, then this approach may be helpful. But if your goal is to change things, to reduce the suffering, and to make life better in the future, then saying that suffering is good for us may well be counterproductive. It suggests that we should not try to reduce the suffering, should not try to prevent or cure diseases, make airplanes safer, or prevent child abuse. In other words, it does not help make the world better for children to say that “suffering is good for you.”

Process theology can help people to focus on religious responses to suffering that point our thinking, worship, counseling, in directions that do help make the world better for children. Process theology established itself on the theological scene by having something important and new to say about the religious problem of evil, but the challenge of teaching those ideas effectively continues. One way to do that, I think, is to help people reflect more deeply on their own religious responses to suffering and the ethical implications of those responses.

A “theodicy” is a defense of God, or at least a defense of belief in God, in the face of the massive evil in the world. For years I taught theodicy simply as arguments to be evaluated on logical grounds. But I consistently heard my students saying amazing things like: “Cancer is not really so bad. My Aunt Jane has cancer and it has really drawn our family together.” Or, “Rape isn’t so terrible as it seems. My cousin Julie was raped and now she works in a rape counseling center. She feels as if she has a real purpose in life.” Perplexed by such claims, I stepped back and decided that I was missing the point of what these students were talking about. Beyond theology, they were trying to solve some other, quite different problem, which ran much deeper that specific religious beliefs. I obviously wasn’t going to respond effectively until I understood what problem they were trying to solve. I began to ask different questions which have changed the way I think about theodicies. What do theodicies do? What problems are they actually working to solve? How well do they work at solving those problems? And, finally, are these the most important problems before us?

Here is my hypothesis. Pain hurts more when it feels pointless, meaningless, absurd. Conversely, pain is eased, and we are comforted, by a sense of meaning, of good achieved, of a noble purpose served. Consequently, the problem people confront is how to find some comforting meaning in their pain. This hypothesis leads to a prediction. Since we human beings are driven very powerfully by our pain, we can predict that people will often go to great lengths to find some meaning in it.

Some pain in life has a clear purpose. People work at unpleasant jobs to earn a living. Athletes push their bodies to improve their performance. And we know, of course, that pain is one of the body’s safety mechanisms. But most of the painful events in life seem to have no purpose. They are often random, and all too frequently malicious or simply stupid. Children get sick, are abused by their parents, or are hit by drunk drivers. There simply is no noble purpose or meaning to it. What do we do for comfort then?

In my class, I begin with a handout on “Suffering & Meaning.” On it I have suggested six points on a spectrum of responses people might have to suffering in their lives:

(1) I’m glad it happened! However painful at the time, that experience taught me a great deal and led me to explore whole new ways of living. The lessons I learned from that event have far outweighed the problems. (2) It was a difficult experience, but I think it was for the best. It has helped me learn and grow. (3) Well, I’ve learned a lot from that experience, and I’m a better person in some ways because of it. But if I had a choice, I still wish it hadn’t happened. (4) It was a terrible experience. I have learned to live with it and have tried to use it as a learning experience, but it will always be something I deeply regret. (5) It was horrible! Nothing can ever make up for the suffering I endured and still endure. (6) A person may be so crushed (or killed!) by suffering that they simply lose any significant capacity to cope with it in any creative way. It may drive them to withdraw, to commit suicide, to escape into insanity, to become sociopathically violent, etc.
I invite the class to propose possible examples from their own lives or others which fit in each category. Perhaps someone lost a job, and that pushed them out of an easy lethargy into a whole new world that helped them develop their deeper abilities and joys. They may say it’s a #1 because however painful it was at first, now they are “glad it happened.” But surely many events in life fall in the #4 and #5 categories. When all is said and done we cannot imagine ever being glad they happened. And some events are so traumatic that they simply crush the person, leaving them destroyed in body and soul, as suggested in #6. My experience is that if people discuss this scale before we start talking too much theology, nearly everyone can agree that not every event in life is a #1 or #2. Genuinely bad things do happen in life. So what do we do to cope with those other events of suffering? I explore two paths in response to pointless suffering.

Path One: Searching For Hidden Meaning

The first path is one which seeks a hidden meaning in our pain. Whether it is an appeal to divine providence or to karma, this approach simply insists that despite appearances, there is some unknown meaning, so that the suffering is only apparent, not genuine evil. The theodicy’s main task is to ease our pain by assuring us that the suffering serves some noble purpose, some greater meaning, that if we just understood God’s plan we would be “glad it happened.” It does this by invoking an omnipotent God or an unseen Dharma. Despite the fact that everyone knows that bad things happen in life, this path denies that they are ultimately bad. Painful yes; bad, no. “All things work together for good,” however hidden from us the plan may be.

Whether the theodicy is worked out in terms of free will, karma, or some great tapestry which allegedly weaves pain and suffering into a beautiful whole, the problematic claim is that ALL, not merely SOME, suffering is meaningful, is finally a #1, if we just see it from a divine perspective.

Obviously, this religious response to suffering does offer some comfort to people or it would not be so nearly universal. But this comfort comes at a very high price. It forces us into a religious position which denies one of the deepest truths of human experience - that truly bad things happen in life. Further, it undermines any serious ethical framework, for ethics always assumes that there are actions and events which are truly bad.

How can we help people rethink the traditional idea of an omnipotent and perfectly loving God? Have your class make a list of actual events that they would agree are really bad—3-6 on my scale. Or, have them make a list of things (rape, child abuse, etc.) that they would feel morally obligated to prevent if they had the power to do so. If we take the path of hidden meaning, we are forced to say that in these cases - for whatever reason we offer - this omnipotent God holds values exactly the opposite of ours since that God clearly chooses not to prevent these events. This is a troubling view of God, especially if, as Luke 6:36 says, we are to “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” Surely religious beliefs which describe God’s values and actions as directly opposite our own best moral thinking and feeling work to undermine rather than nurture our best responses to life’s suffering.

Path Two: Creating Meaning

I propose a second path toward comfort in our pain, one which I believe does help make the world better for children. This path acknowledges that genuinely bad things happen. Rather than evade this fact by asking what hidden meaning there may be, it asks different questions. Given that suffering is sometimes creative of greater good, and sometimes not, what makes the difference? What can we do to redeem from suffering whatever degree of good lies within our power to create? As painful as it may be, I think there can be real psychological value in acknowledging that most suffering is simply tragic and pointless. There can be real value in allowing people to feel their rightful anger and grief without trying to steal away their right to grieve by saying that this suffering is part of God’s loving plan or the work of karma. There can be real value, I think, in seeing that suffering usually comes to us absurdly - without purpose - but that it still lies within our power to create some good out of some of it.

I believe process theology can help people to directly confront the suffering and summon the courage to redeem from it whatever good lies within our power to create. One excellent essay on this topic comes from the process theologian, Daniel Day Williams: “Suffering and Being in Empirical Theology.”

Williams notes that some suffering leads to creative good, while some does not. Rather than ask about the hidden meaning of suffering, he asks the much more ethically constructive question: What are the conditions which sometimes make it possible for us to respond creatively to suffering, and how can we work to create those conditions? He suggests that suffering has a chance to become creative of good when we respond to it in ways that help us come to clearer self-awareness. (See Marjorie Suchocki’s wonderful book, In God’s Presence, p. 72ff.) Furthermore, he argues that community is essential to the redemption of suffering. We need other people who can hear our story and not be destroyed by it, who can help us to reconceive the events in a larger framework that gives it constructive meaning. And finally, “there is the transformation which takes place in the meaning of suffering through love. The hard fact, beyond all sentimentality, is that either we share suffering in love or outside of love, and it is not the same in one case as in the other. Suffering with the other in love becomes a sacrament of the possibility of love in all being and is the deepest source of the transmutation of suffering.” But, of course, “There is no guarantee . . .” (Williams, 189).


When we reflect on religious responses to suffering, we do well to ask what problems they are trying to solve, and whether those problems are the ones we most need to solve to make the world better for children by reducing suffering, and responding to it as creatively as possible. Process theology enables us to affirm the basic human conviction that bad things really do happen and that we really do need to work against them, by offering a vision of God as One who works with us to deal meaningfully with suffering here and now. Process theologians envision a God who does exactly the kinds of things Williams so wisely says that we must be doing if we are to help create from suffering whatever good we can. God, according to process theists, is the ultimate member of the world’s community who shares our suffering, hears our story without being crushed, works with us to re-conceive it in creative ways, and loves us through it all. Process theology leads people like Williams to ask the right kind of question about suffering. Rather than ask how we can pretend that it isn’t really bad, process theology leads us to ask how we can work with God to respond creatively to suffering and to reduce the suffering in the world here and now. That kind of theology helps make the world better for children.

If you're interested in learning more about Mesle's perspectives on making meaning out of suffering, check out his interview with Tripp Fuller. Click here and here to listen to the Mp3s.

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