Friday, April 9, 2010

the problem of pain: SOLVED

Back when we were both in University, my rock star/philosopher friend Christopher John used to tell me about once every couple of months that I was an existentialist. I'm a dabbler in the fine art of wisdom-loving, so I know (or at least, I think I know) that this means that I believe that I believe that "existence precedes essence," which I will herein re-define as meaning that it is not "what you know," but "how you live."

Makes sense to me, so today when my son and I were driving to dump off our recycling, I decided to use this existentialist para-dig-um that I apparently have to solve, once and for all, "the Problem of Pain."

[Pauses for Uproarious Laughter]

That was a joke. And it was really, really funny. People have been trying (fairly unsuccessfully) to solve the problem of pain for a lot longer than I've been turning air into carbon dioxide and (tee hee) methane - and believe it or not, some of them have even been smarter than me. So I guess that the way I'm going to get past this glaring difficulty is to sneak around behind it, wrap an existential garrote around its neck, and pull until it dies of boredom and I die of not breathing anymore.

Perhaps I should start by defining what I am talking about, so that all the materialists and atheists in the room can leave. You see, Pain is only a Problem if you believe that life is supra-meaningful. What I mean to say is that if you don't believe that there is anything super-natural (like God or an afterlife) that gives significance to the natural world you live in, then it shouldn't come as a particular surprise that the world is often a very yucky place*. It is what it is (the reasoning goes), so if people do stupid things and hurt each other; or if bad things happen to pleasant little old ladies like my grandmother, well... then I guess life sucks and then you die, and that's all there is to it. No sense in trying to make a divine mountain out of a primordial puddle.

However, for folks who believe (or want to believe) that their lives are meaningful in a way that transcends their experience, then Pain becomes a very, very sticky issue... especially if they believe that there is a good God who is running the whole show. How do you rationally reconcile a good God and meaningful existence with all the things that happen that seem very, very not-good, and also meaningless? I touched on this a while back in my post entitled "Jesi Renmen Ou, Haiti," which I wrote just after a horrible earthquake devastated that already suffering country (remember waaaay back when that happened?). How do you reconcile, for example, the Haitian earthquake? How?

[Stop. Now. Send Money. Return to Post]

There are, of course, a great many attempts to make this reconciliation; from the more profound written by very wise, very intelligent and compassionate theologians - to the more idiot-stick attempts by people who say things like, "well, they had it coming to them, because they had a pact with the devil." To the work of the former, I really have nothing to add. To the latter, I have only to say with an admixture of sorrow and rage, that it is my firm belief that you have made a grave error and possibly a pact of your own. Sooner or later, something seemingly meaningless and unjust will happen to you (although by this point, I think most people would say you probably deserve it) and you will have to choose between either facing the truth, or creating another, more complex lie. I pray you take your time with that decision... it is very, very important.

So how do I solve the Problem of Pain? Well... the short answer is, I don't. What I try to do, instead, is to face it with tears in my eyes - every single day of my life. Because if C.S. Lewis, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Mother Theresa can't actually "solve" it, then chances are pretty good that neither can I. All you atheists can call this a failure of intellectual rigor (go ahead and do it, you'll feel better), but how does the saying go...? I'd rather keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.

Oh, I've got my theories, but the best theory I ever read was a young adult book called "The Giver," by Lois Lowry, which didn't actually solve anything for me, but somehow bypassed my "higher" brain functions and convinced me (somehow) that living with the awareness of the evil in this world of ours is just a wee bit better than the alternative. And that's key, because it is the awareness that is the real problem. Wolves, bunny rabbits and probably even grasshoppers feel pain, but I'm pretty sure it's not the injustice of it that bothers them - they just want it to stop and will do anything they can to make that happen. I doubt the boll weevils get together on Fridays and try to hammer out a solution to the significance of why the rice merchants keep poisoning them. No, the Problem of Pain is a human problem, a part of what it means to be human**.

But I'm talking in circles here, and I suspect it is largely just for the pleasure of hearing myself think. The point, the point!

The point is, that although people on all sides of this argument are liable to condemn me for it, I refuse to try to "solve" this problem, because Christopher was right. I am an existentialist, and I do think it is more important how I live in the face of the Problem of Pain than what my logical take on it is. In fact, I think that anyone who presumes to actually solve (once and for all) a mystery such as this, is the very sort of person that you should not trust to tell you anything - not even directions to the door so you can escape all those blasts of hot air. It is an important question, so people with keen brains ought to wrestle with it. They're also welcome to share the results of their wrestling matches with others, and those others are welcome to listen. But not me, not anymore. I've had my go and I'm done with it.

Instead, I will start from the belief that there is pain in the world, and that I cannot make sense of it. This pain does not jive with what I believe about the meaning of life, nor does it fit with what I believe about a good God who loves me and everyone else. Nonetheless... I believe in those things... nonetheless. First, because I have found no better alternative (Jesus is way cool!). And second, because that IS faith. It's what faith is all about, and anyone who tells you differently doesn't have faith, they've got a Club!

Having admitted that "it is what it is" and having made it very clear that I am NOT going to clear things up for you (as if I could), I will now tell you what I meant when I said that I try to face it with tears in my eyes - every single day of my life. I have waited to explain myself because I think that you can't take that step until you've first reached that place of epistemological uncertainty that I have been trying to describe. Now that we are on the same page, I will say that I am not, in fact, talking about esoteric philosophical principles. I am talking about the real, human pain I felt when my first dog died. And when I got dumped by my first best friend, and girlfriend. And when my marriage died. And when, recently, I did something else (ooh... a mystery) that was poorly timed and caused me more pain than it needed to. This is real, gut-level, simple stuff.

But instead of denying that pain, I will attempt to look squarely into it, holding desperately to my faith because I believe with all my heart that it is that hope and that faith that will allow me to transcend that pain and begin to love other people. Everything else I've tried has just been manipulation and control, and it hasn't worked.

I'll end by giving it to you as a two-sentence starting point: not an answer, but a question. Not certainty, but a hope:

If you admit that pain is an inevitable mystery and really, truly accept this while somehow maintaining your hope that life is still meaningful and good, then it will open you up to Love. If, however, you deny the truth of your finite inability to comprehend such an infinite problem, and repeatedly try to cobble together some illusion of having "solved" it, then you will close yourself off to Love and invite despair into your heart, where it will destroy you and let the smoke monster convince you to kill people just to get off the island***.

Only a sado-masochist would want pain in his life, but I can honestly say I believe that all the heartache of my life - from the dead puppy to the dead marriage to the mysterious recent "thing" - are treasures that I wouldn't trade for anything. They have taught me how to live. They have expanded my capacity to love.


* I want to make it exceptionally clear that I am only using the terms "natural" and "supernatural" very loosely here, in order to give a general sense of why Pain is a Problem for a certain group of people. In my own life, I do my best not to dualize the two, because I think they are intertwined in a mysterious symbiotic relationship that is defiled by attempts to split the world into these two categories. Nice try, Plato, but you can take your cave and stuff it with cotton candy.

** As a side note, you could perhaps argue that I am suggesting that materialist atheists are inhuman, but I think rather that I am saying that they're working awfully hard to deny an aspect of their humanity and that I very much doubt if any of them will actually ever completely succeed. This is, of course, an arrogant, dehumanizing thing to say. But you'll remember that they said (at my prompting) that I had dropped the ball on intellectual rigor, and if I can encourage them to speak honestly out of their convictions, then they ought to do me the same courtesy.

*** Woot! Woot! Props to "Lost"! Never thought I'd care about a TV show, but there you have it. Oh, and props to Hulu, for letting me watch "Lost" without having to own a television.

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