Marvels: Letters from an Elder, Part 8
Letter # 5, June 2nd, 1948 (continued)
‘Does pain have a purpose?’ you ask.
It is very easy to answer such questions intellectually when one sits, pain-free, able to pontificate upon suffering conceptually, at one’s leisure. In the midst of physical or emotional pain, the ability to think and any memory of leisure is absent and useless.
Some important points need to be recognised:
A great deal of pain, especially emotional or mental pain, is self-created, or at least, contributed to by the self. This does not mean that the pain is any less real or felt, only that it can be lessened more easily if the person is able to recognise how exactly he or she is contributing to it.
Some sensations are avoided by the physical body as a matter of biological hard-wiring: the body flinches and drops hot objects, for example, without requiring any thought or decision-making on our part. But there are other bodily systems which, while they work more slowly, are designed to have the same effect. Anxiety, for example, or fear, are composed of a range of physical sensations generated by the body’s nervous system in an attempt to control the individual’s behaviour: one’s heart beats faster, one begins to perspire and tremble, one feels an urge to flee, none of which are rationally controlled. As the system prompts us to drop a hot iron bar, so is the system guiding us into protective action, but less automatically, less reactively, more slowly.
Some physical pains are like this too: muscular development depends upon damaging a muscle under the controlled conditions of exercise. It is the body’s repair of the muscle which has been thus damaged which creates more muscle. Other physical pains train our bodies to move certain ways and not others, acting as built-in warning signs about the limits or advisabilities of particular actions or inactions. Heart attacks and strokes tell us of underlying conditions, albeit drastically and with potentially fatal consequences.
The point is that pain indicates limits. That means that we can rephrase your question and ask rather ‘Do limits have a purpose?’ Answering that question takes us away from pondering biology and psychology into the heart of why biology and psychology even exist.
You may read elsewhere that God tests the mortal soul by imposing limits, including painful ones, in order to see how the soul will respond. This is an idea in common circulation over many centuries, and it is prevalent because from a certain point of view it appears to explain a number of facts and to some extent to justify and give meaning to human behaviour and life. If adversity is meant to test us, then adversity has an explanation, and any mysteries are thus categorised and defused.
But it is a heartless God who would treat His creations so much like laboratory animals, placing them in certain conditions in order to ‘see what they might do’. The agonies of individual examples are countless in number, unbearable in magnitude, heart-rending in detail. What kind of individuals are being moulded through such pains? What kind of master or creator makes things in such a merciless, remorseless way? How pitiless is a God who would force His creatures to endure such torments? This is why we must first consider the individual’s own role in such agonies.
Mostly we can see how this might work, even as mortals: emotional pain, for example, frequently emerges from a person’s own incompetence or even purposeful mismanaging or damaging approach to a situation. The married man who consciously has an affair and then suffers when his marriage breaks up; the mother who torments her child and is then heartbroken when she is abandoned by that child in later years; the molester who dies a lonely death in gaol, and so on — these are all obvious examples of a person bringing about their own misery in some way.
Less easy to fathom are the travails brought about by physical health issues: the child with leukaemia, the young woman struck down by paralysis, the man with sepsis after a routine operation, all these and many more appear simply as victims of a pitiless Fate. The individuals appear to have no role in the events tormenting them at all.
To comprehend what is happening there, we must return to basics.
God, by definition, is Joy, Love, Peace, Light. There is no shadow of darkness in Him, not as an assertion of dogma but as a simple statement of definition. To have a god with some semblance of evil or tenebrosity about him might indeed be possible and might even be worshipped, as such a god has been throughout Time — but here we speak conceptually: a god thus defined is a different model than the one outlined by the primary definition. Our starting point is that God is Love.
Given that definition, mortals struggle with the presence of victim-based suffering as mentioned above. While it’s possible to rationalise the suffering of the betrayer, or the criminal, or the sexual abuser as deserved and retributive, the suffering of innocence appears to be beyond rationality. But the crux of that conclusion rests upon the word ‘appears’.
The sense of something becomes immediately apparent once all its components are present. And so it is with innocent suffering: it makes sense once we admit that not all the facts must be present to our understanding. We can indulge in supposition as to what those missing facts might be: the child suffers because of karma from a past life, the young woman suffers because of her own spiritual desire to endure limitations, the man with sepsis suffers in order to change the focus of his life, and so forth. But we are filling in gaps without full awareness of the whole scene. Some of our guesses may be right or of a more or less correct nature, but it would be folly to judge the scene based on those guesses.
These leads to a question related to our initial enquiry: ‘Why are our perceptions of reality thus limited?’
Surely, if we could only see the patterns of karma, the spiritual desires and directions of others, we would be less perplexed by the way things appear to work in the mortal world. We could lend assistance to the child, knowing that his or her ordeal would soon be over in accordance with a larger divine justice; we could support the paralysed woman as she seeks to learn to restrict herself; we could help the infected man find new directions and focus. Everything would make sense. Our best natures would be summoned forth to succour the victims of the world.
Have you seen the misdirection that is being revealed here?
While our own attention is fixated upon our lack of understanding of victimhood, the victims go unassisted, almost unnoticed, in our intellectualisations. The child, rather than being a child suffering, in need of our support, becomes a puzzle; the woman, rather than being a patient in need of practical and emotional provision, becomes a mystery to ponder; the man with sepsis, rather than being someone requiring our encouragement, becomes part of an intellectual game.
And thus we let our better natures down.