I’ve been making my way through Scott Samuelson’s newly published, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. I know, there are lighter offerings on the shelves, but I’m drawn to this stuff. I should probably consider a career in the Rabbinate or something. En route to my Yizkor sermon (and again Rosh Hashanah falls on the evening of 9th September), I’ll be sharing in this blog from some of the insights in the book and suggesting a Jewish response to them.
Chapter five of Samuelson’s work features the response of the Stoics. This response entails seeing suffering as no more and no less than the rules of game. As Samuelson imagines us playing chess, and wishing our pawn could zip up the board and take the opponent’s queen several ranks away, but that simply wouldn’t be chess. Similar we could wish that we, or a loved one, wouldn’t be suffering, but to wish for a life without pain is to wish for a breaking of the rules of existence. We can’t all live for ‘beyond average’ lengths of time. To think, says Epictetus, father of the Stoics, that “the fall of leaves is ill-omened, or that it is evil for a bunch of grapes to turn into raisins” is a waste of emotional energy, and worse, such an expectation only sets us up for disappointment and added heartbreak.
There is, clearly, an attraction in a stoic worldview. It’s safe from breeding disappointment. And, indeed, somewhere in a called-for Jewish response to our own bad things come the urge that we find a way to accept our experience of bad things in general and human fragility in particular. In Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s most magisterial prayer, the Unataneh Tokef, we acknowledge that ‘humanity comes dust, and ends in dust; like a broken clay shard, withered grass, a shrivelled flower ...’
But the response of stoicism is not the first response. And we cannot - must not - skip to the end of the story before its time. As well as acknowledging our mortality we are called to remember we are ‘little less than angels,’ that ‘the Universe is created for our sake,’ that we embody ‘the image of God.’ And so on. Life is precious, astoundingly so. Loss, pain and suffering are not invitations for cool-heads to nod coolly. They are tragedies to be mourned. In one of my favourite Talmudic passages, the young Rabbi Yochanan enters the room of the dying leader of his generation Rabbi Eliezer to see his teacher in tears. “Why do you cry?” the neophyte asks as if tears are somehow a failure of greatness. “I cry because of the beauty that is to rot in the earth” the Master responds, “And they cry together.” We don’t express our humanity through being so tough, so smart or so stoical that we feel no pain. That is the characteristic of a rock, not a being of flesh and soul. We should not feel called to transcend our humanity. For humans the more we love, the more we hope, the more we invest in the relationships which are the true touchstones of humanity, the more we hurt when these hopes are dashed. To hurt is to be human. Transcendence of our mortal realm is not the goal. Our suffering, as painful as it may be, is not pointless if it connects us to our humanity, rather it reminds us, even in our pain, of the importance of having a soul at all.