We Are Made to Suffer

August 18, 2014 | 46 comments
By
2014-08-18 Guernica

Picasso’s “Guernica”

In centuries gone by the best you could hope for in the case of an aching tooth would be that someone would yank it out, but thanks to modern medicine we can detect cavities and fill them before they start to cause any pain at all. Of course, the drilling of the tooth itself is painful, so you can have your tooth numbed with an injection. Someone jabbing a sharp needle into your gums isn’t a walk in the park either, so you can have some topical gel applied before the shot.

Just to recap: you get a numbing gel to take away the pain of the injection which in turn numbs the tooth to avoid the pain of the drill which in turn fixes the tooth before it can start to seriously ache. That’s a triple-layer pain-mitigation strategy.

Of course I took the topical gel and the shot. All else being equal, I’m definitely a fan of less pain rather than more pain. But I also wondered if we’ve reached a point in our society where we are so good at avoiding pain and suffering that we’ve come to view them as exotic. As defects than can be eliminated. As aberrant rather than as uncomfortable but necessary aspects of a meaningful existence.

The Son of Man hath descended below them all.
Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122:8)

Health officials assure Americans that the terrifying Ebola outbreak in West Africa is no threat to the United States in part because “Americans [do not] bury their own dead family members or friends, as some residents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea must do with Ebola victims.” (Washington Post) In Thailand the job of responding to auto accidents often falls on private volunteers known as bodysnatchers:

Unlike the UK or US, Thailand operates on a two-tier emergency support system, sending out volunteers, or ‘basic teams’, to accident or crime scenes first, and only then an advanced life-support ambulance if needed. These ‘basic teams’ provide a vital service and account for about 60% of the emergency cases Bangkok’s hospitals see every year. Most Thais believe that helping others – be it the injured or dead – allows one to earn karmic merit. Here we spend the night with a Noppadon, one of Bangkok’s many volunteer body-collectors – also known as bodysnatchers. (The Guardian)

The treatment of death is just another example to show how completely those of us who live in the First World have sealed ourselves off from the harsher realities of mortality. We don’t bury our own dead, we don’t rescue our own wounded, we don’t tend to our own sick. We don’t even hunt or butcher our own meat. Our relationship to death is pretty similar to the stereotypical Victorian attitude about sex: at once repressive and obsessive. Meanwhile, we segregate those struggling with serious psychological or physical challenges and we use pre-natal screening and elective abortion to ensure that more than 90% of human beings with Down syndrome never live to take their first breath. In a world with surrogate pregnancy and designer babies life itself has become a commodity. And Americans, ever the consummate consumers, do not appreciate defects in their merchandise. And so: we have stigmatized imperfection and suffering.

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me,
it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,
and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come;
but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matthew 18:6-7)

Two years ago the Huffington Post published a three-part story on The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the Largest Public Health Study You Never Heard Of. The story begins with an obesity clinic in San Diego:

It was 1985, and Dr. Vincent Felitti was mystified. The physician, chief of Kaiser Permanente’s revolutionary Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, CA, couldn’t figure out why, each year for the last five years, more than half of the people in his obesity clinic dropped out.

The strange behavior—lots of those who dropped out were actually having great success prior to dropping out—drew Dr. Felitti’s attention, but cracking the mystery proved difficult. In fact, the first breakthrough came completely by accident. He was asking a series of standard questions to an obesity program participant when he accidentally posed the question “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” instead of “How old were you when you were first sexually active?” The participant replied, “Forty pounds.” The article recounts:

[Dr. Felitti] didn’t understand what he was hearing. He misspoke the question again. She gave the same answer, burst into tears and added, “It was when I was four years old, with my father.” He suddenly realized what he had asked.

This was only the second case of incest Dr. Felitti had come across in over 20 years, but just 10 days later he came across another example. “It was very disturbing,” he said. “Every other person was providing information about childhood sexual abuse. I thought, ‘This can’t be true. People would know if that were true. Someone would have told me in medical school.’”

As Dr. Felitti began to study the problem he became increasingly convinced that cases of incest and other traumatic experiences that he termed Adverse Childhood Experiences were far more common that people believed, but initially he had very little success in convincing others of his results. Then, in a study running from 1995-1997, Dr. Felitti and his colleagues were able to interview over 17,000 participants about their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As the second article in the HuffPo series describes it:

When the first results of the survey were due to come in, Anda [Felitti’s colleague] was at home in Atlanta. Late in the evening, he logged into his computer to look at the findings. He was stunned. “I wept,” he says. “I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”

Here are the core results of the first ACE study, which have been confirmed in subsequent studies. First, “there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.” So these ACEs are quite serious in terms of their impact on the lives of those who experience them. Second, two out of three participants had suffered from at least one ACE and nearly 60% had suffered from two or more. So they are indeed quite widespread, much more than most people believe. But the most shocking result of all comes when you consider the demographics of the people in the study:

The ACE Study participants were average Americans. Eighty percent were white (including Latino), 10 percent black and 10 percent Asian. They were middle-class, middle-aged, and 74 percent were college-educated. Since they were members of Kaiser Permanente, they all had jobs and great health care. Their average age was 57. As Anda has said: “It’s not just ‘them’. It’s us.”

So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights,
and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great. (Job 2:13)

As I wrote in the beginning: more pain and suffering is—all else equal—a bad thing. But all else is not always equal. Myopic emphasis on the minimization of suffering is hedonism’s twin. It lends itself to the line of thinking, often misattributed to Stalin, that “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.”

In addition, many meaningful and necessary life experiences are inseparable from the pain and suffering that accompany them.

Growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you’re just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something. Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind–graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There’s the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans, and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn’t give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There’s the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bury their burdens.

And if you’re very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a movement of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last–and yet will remain with you for life.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it’s a big part, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it’s a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you’re alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.(Jim Butcher, in Chapter 31 of White Night)

Perhaps most importantly, however, the reality is that we cannot mourn with those who mourn if mourning itself has become secret and furtive. To the extent that we remain unaware of the great, wide, swathes of pain and tragedy and heartache that beset our friends and family and colleagues and neighbors—even in the First World and even in the middle class—we suppress those who should be healed or, where that is not possible, at least comforted. Those who are already hurting the most are made to bear the burden of society’s stigmatization of suffering.

It is for this reason that I am so deeply disturbed by the politicization of suffering. Pain is something that should unite us as a universal human experience, but our fascination with quantifying and correlating pain in the service of this or that political ideology renders pain and suffering an exclusive and antagonistic experience. It divides instead of uniting, makes strangers instead of friends, creates enemies instead of allies.

I do not for a moment proffer the absurdity that there are no factors—such as race or socio-economic status—that correlate with specific kinds of suffering and oppression. Nor am I arguing for some kind of ridiculous equivocation, as though everyone suffers the same. Far from it: I believe that suffering–like pleasure–is fundamentally incommensurate from person to person. No comparisons are possible. I am also not inveighing against concern for catastrophic suffering in remote places or for concern with systematic injustice. All these things matter, but I cannot help but believe that we would do better to stress what is common rather than digging to find more that is distinctive.

When we think that we know how much a person has suffered or not suffered because we know their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their marital status, or their race, or their country of origin we have made the grave error of seeing categories when we should be seeing individuals. These kinds of assumptions do a great deal of damage because they divert our sense of empathy from individuals within our circle of direct influence towards abstract groups and causes over which we can have only minimal influence. How common is it for us to feel sympathy for some member of an in-group we’ve never met, while fighting with a family member or co-worker who falls into the wrong political category? It’s so much easier to empathize with the idealized pain and suffering of groups rather than the far, far messier drama of individuals whose lives intersect—often awkwardly—with our own.

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you,
as though some strange thing happened unto you. (1 Peter 4:12)

We are made to suffer, and this is true for both definitions of the word “made.” We were created to experience suffering within this life as part of the general plan. Once we get here, we are forced to undergo specific painful experiences. Some are God’s will. Some are random chance. Some are the result of the choices of others. Some we bring upon ourselves. It’s probably hopeless to try and figure out which is which.

I haven’t read Robyn Schneider’s tale of high school romance The Beginning of Everything, but in writing this piece I came across a quote from the book:

“Life is the tragedy,” she said bitterly. “You know how they categorize Shakespeare’s plays, right? If it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. And if it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. So we’re all living tragedies, because we all end the same way, and it isn’t with a —damn wedding.”

The quote got me thinking: Mormonism teaches that marriage is forever. Families are eternal. In our sealing ceremonies, we are joined not “til death do you part” but for time and all eternity. So yes, there is a funeral at the end of life, and that is tragic. But the wedding outlasts the funeral, and that is the Mormon affirmation that we can—with actions we take in this life—participate in the defeat of death and tragedy and secure a happy ending for ourselves and our families. Not instead of all the pain, but in addition to all the pain and, just a little bit, because of all the pain.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

46 Responses to We Are Made to Suffer

  1. Roger on August 18, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Sitting, trying to take it all in. Powerful writing.

  2. theoldadam on August 18, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Suffering is a part of our fallen condition.

    When we are reunited with the Lord on that Day…there will be no more suffering.

  3. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 8:35 am

    So here’s your theodicy: God’s a sadist but it’s ok because we get to live with him forever.

  4. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Are you really saying that elective abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome is a commodification of life? Will you go a step further, are people who have the cystic fibrosis gene and choose not to have children violating the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth?

  5. Chris Kimball on August 18, 2014 at 9:38 am

    I think that mourning with those that mourn works best with attention to the individual. And that efforts to minimize future suffering works best with generalizations and categories. I want to be part of both good works.

  6. Roger on August 18, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Yes to the first. No to the second.

  7. Andrew on August 18, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Though not Mormon, I agree completely with your post.

  8. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Roger, I can see why the means are different, but isn’t the end the same? And while I can see that the elective abortion of a fetus may be a sin, I don’t see it as a commodification. Is assisted suicide a commodification?

    What end is being furthered by not having children based on a genetic marker?

  9. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 10:39 am

    At first I was shocked but after more reflection, this suffering over the avoidance of suffering is just plain hilarious.

  10. SilverRain on August 18, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Thank you, Nathaniel. Essays like yours are why I keep reading the Bloggernacle. You make me feel like maybe I’m not as crazy as I often wonder.

    Life is pain, but that isn’t pessimism. It’s the purest kind of hope. Accepting that can open the doors of consecration.

  11. Jared vdH on August 18, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Martin James,

    What I got from the OP was more that in order to avoid sharing another’s pain or at times admitting to our own pain, we instead avoid it and try to make it as though it never happened. We want so badly to have a “happy life” that we ignore the suffering of those around us and never admit to ourselves our own pain.

    At least that was my take away. If you got something else out of it, please share.

  12. Nathaniel Givens on August 18, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Are you really saying that elective abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome is a commodification of life? Will you go a step further, are people who have the cystic fibrosis gene and choose not to have children violating the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth? – Martin James

    There is a stark divide between not creating a life that would have a genetic defect and ending a life that has already begun because it is defective. However, that divide is not actually necessary to make my central point. So instead of rehashing the abortion debate here (something I am quite happy to do, but not in this thread) I would like to point out that there’s another insidious problem with the high rate of abortion of Down syndrome babies: it reveals an assumption that imperfections are the worst thing that could happen to a person in life when, in fact, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all.

    The vast majority of parents [of Down syndrome children] said they have a more positive outlook on life because of their child with Down syndrome. And, nearly 90 percent of siblings indicated that they feel like they are better people because of their brother or sister with the developmental disability.

    Nearly all of the survey respondents with Down syndrome said they were happy with their lives, themselves and their appearance. Only 4 percent said they felt sad about their life. (Disability Scoop, citing a trio of surveys.

    This gets to what Jared vdH wrote:

    What I got from the OP was more that in order to avoid sharing another’s pain or at times admitting to our own pain, we instead avoid it and try to make it as though it never happened.

    That is, indeed, the main point of my post. Suffering is not something that we ought to seek out. I’m not encouraging ascetism or self-flegallation (“woe unto the world because of offenses”), but suffering (at least some of it) is both necessary for a meannigful life and inseperable from beneficial life experiences (“it must needs be that offenses come”).

    There is a balance between seeking or causing suffering (which is pathological) and trying to completely eliminate suffering no matter that cost (which is also pathological), and that middle ground entails an acceptance that suffering, as a general category, is a part of the human experience. We should always seek to avoid it when it’s not necessary and mitigate it when we can, but we should also realize that after all we have done some suffering will remain. It’s a part of life, and we should recognize when suffering calls for acceptance rather than or in addition to rejection and avoidance.

  13. SilverRain on August 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Along your same thoughts, Nathaniel…here is something I wrote some time ago. I wrote another, but never published it.

    You may not want to read it, but given what you’ve written here, I thought it would resonate.

  14. Roger on August 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Martin— what Nathaniel said.

    Since I’ve personally lived with the situations you initially described, I was damping down my response to remove considerable emotion from it. These have not been abstractions for us. I haven’t borne a testimony in 40+ years, but if I can here, it is that finding one’s pain through a child born with serious issues and not succumbing to terminal bitterness–a journey I’ve watched my daughter make– can only be accomplished by coming to grips with Jesus’ suffering and grace. Nathaniel’s OP and follow-up comments convey the closest I’ve felt to an understanding of the Gospel at this late date.

  15. honey on August 18, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    What a great post! I’m glad I read it, which doesn’t very often happen for me on the bloggernacle these days.

  16. Cugeno on August 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks to an insightful professor-clergyman-physician, we read the ACE study during my first year of medical school. It pretty much leveled me (as a person who suffered abuse as a five-year-old, and identified with the study on a number of levels).
    I remember once, in the early stages of dealing with the attendant issues, when I asked my clinician if I could still be a doc after suffering abuse as a kid. It was a stupid question, perhaps, but an honest concern. His response has stayed with me ever since: “If you manage it right, it could make you a better one.”

  17. Michelle on August 18, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    “I cannot help but believe that we would do better to stress what is common rather than digging to find more that is distinctive.” I love this.

    And this: “It’s so much easier to empathize with the idealized pain and suffering of groups rather than the far, far messier drama of individuals whose lives intersect—often awkwardly—with our own.”

    I also think that ultimately, the pattern/order of the Church seeks to move us toward this more local, personal approach to mourning with those that mourn. Although, as someone above said, there are needs ‘out there’ that do need to be filled, I think God’s order of things is to work toward having each local area be able to have the means and the covenants to bind people together to care about each other and sustain each other in their direct spheres of influence.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of pain and this gives me lots to think about.

  18. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Jared Vdh,

    If that was the point, then the pot shots against people who abort down syndrome babies or have designer babies was gratuitous.

    Putting abortions aside, designers babies are certainly not avoiding pain at all costs.

    Theologically, I would even say that “designer” intelligences must exist to populate those designer bodies and therefore it must be part of God’s plan.

  19. Martin James on August 18, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Roger,

    Thank you for your testimony. I’m glad Jesus’s grace is available for your daughter and for us all.

  20. DQ on August 19, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Best post I’ve ever read on this site. Or probably elsewhere on the bloggernacle. I really appreciate how you pulled in basic facets of the human condition and wove it together with the atonement.

  21. Nate on August 21, 2014 at 5:43 am

    Nathaniel asks: ” But I also wondered if we’ve reached a point in our society where we are so good at avoiding pain and suffering that we’ve come to view them as exotic. As defects than can be eliminated. As aberrant rather than as uncomfortable but necessary aspects of a meaningful existence.”

    There will always be pleanty of pain. Even while the amount of physical suffering decreases, metaphysical suffering like depression increases, and we’ve seen a surge in this kind of suffering in the sanitized modern world.

    A lot of physical suffering is a complete waste, a total tragedy. It doesn’t lead to growth, but rather sets people back. I would be careful not to romanticize it in any way. Eliminating suffering is always a good thing, except maybe in cases where some sacrifice leads to a greater good, to an ultimate further elimination of suffering.

    Acceptance of suffering is essential, because it is always, and will ever be a constant state of being, (even in heaven where God weeps, and there was a great “war in heaven.”

    But to question mankind’s desire to eliminate it represents a kind of fanatical madness, an incomprehension of just how completely wretched, how disfiguring it can be to the eternal soul. Yes, there can be healing, and that has a transcendent meaning. But it’s transcendence is not appreciated without a sense of the loss and waste that suffering often represents.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on August 21, 2014 at 8:32 am

    Nate-

    But to question mankind’s desire to eliminate it represents a kind of fanatical madness…

    There’s a difference between confronting suffering and avoidance. Confronting suffering means you interact with the people who are suffering to try and help them, for example. Avoidance means you just try to pretend they are not there, for example, or maybe even kill the human being who is suffering to remove the suffering (that is the most extreme version of avoidance).

    Our society veers towards the latter, and that is my criticism. Part of the reason that our society veers towards the latter is because of our very high standard of living. Through a combination of segregation (sometimes for entirely reasonable purposes, like putting the very ill into hospitals for professional treatment) and medicine to manage pain and illness, we have the option of pretending suffering isn’t essential, isn’t universal, isn’t necessary. But it’s a mistake to do so. Not because suffering is romantic, but because treating suffering as an aberration leads to more suffering and more inequality.

  23. DQ on August 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Nate,
    To come at your comment from a different direction. Gardening is good for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which are emotional and spiritual (if you can indeed separate the two, which I’m not sure you can).

    Part of gardening is dealing with weeds. Lots of them. No matter what you do. Unless you use targeted weed killers and plastic or landscape fabric. Even then you still end up with weeds, but you don’t have as many weeds to pull, and for once it seems like it’s not a hopeless battle against untamed, wild nature. Do you lose some spiritual growth in the process while seeking to extract only the physical rewards of the garden even though you still put in a lot of work? Absolutely.

    Being a fallen greedy man who still values the tangible benefits over the spiritual when it comes down to it, I still use the fabric.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve had some amazing conversations with the spirit while sitting there pulling weeds for what seems like hours on end. Had I never had those experiences, I would surely have “suffered” in another way. So what experiences am I denying myself now?

  24. Nathaniel Givens on August 21, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I really like your analogy, DQ. Thanks.

  25. Cameron N. on August 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    The Giver movie comes at a good time, assuming they keep the abortion scene (which I doubt but I haven’t seen it yet). It is my favorite book, in part because it address this issue: “it is better for us to know sorrow…”

  26. Cameron N. on August 21, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Correction: not abortion, infanticide.

  27. RH on August 21, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for putting these concepts into words. I have known suffering in life and have experienced recovery, but now it seems I find myself in the midst of suffering that has not responded to the same tools of recovery I have used in the past. While I was distracted by two of my children, a third–the youngest–slipped out of my sight and quickly died in a preventable accident. I am in a career where I am well-versed in accident prevention and teach others to be mindful of it.

    So, I have dealt with the suffering of guilt that I did not prevent the accident, guilt that I am still here while my child is not, guilt that my family grieves from something that shouldn’t have happened, and guilt that I go on with life–putting this behind me. Others with good intentions have commented that my LDS faith will help me through this, but it turns out that I have had to let go of my outlook on LDS faith and rebuild it again. Congregational worship has had inflicted moments of torment to my grieving soul, and if it weren’t for the responsibility to establish the foundation of faith for my children, I might have given up on trying to participate.

    I couldn’t sing Sacrament hymns about the Savior dying, or I had to put my hands over my ears to prevent the music from racking my emotions. Of course, I walked out of the chapel numerous times. Sometimes, when I was not in a good position to walk out, I sobbed as quietly as I could. Comments in talks that were intended to be uplifting or funny would sometimes enter my mind in a way that they twisted the knife. I did not blame the speakers, I recognized it was something in myself that had become sensitized.

    Well meaning individuals tried to comfort me with folk doctrines. ‘Your child, being under 8, has returned to the arms of Jesus and through that, the veil has been lifted and recollection of the premortal life has returned’. ‘You, your wife, and your child covenanted together in the pre-existence that this experience would happen’. I found those troubling rather than comforting.

    Other individuals tried to comfort me with doctrines that are not completely elucidated scripturally. ‘Your child in the spirit world will linger nearby for a time, but cannot visit where the mortal pain is too strong.’ ‘Your child is not bound in spirit to the mortal age of the body, so may be able to visit you with a spiritual appearance as you knew him, or as an age of maturity.’ Though I believe there are truths to these, the amount of scriptural insight available is limited. The letting go of the ‘childlike’ appearance of my childs’ spirit and acceptance that his spirit body may demonstrate an unrecognizable age compounded the grief of my loss.

    Even true doctrines were not reassuring in my grief. ‘You will raise you child in the millennium.’ While that may be doctrinally true, what does it mean? Will I be of a mind after living a full age and dying myself, that I will be at the peak of my season of optimal parenting by then? Will that upbringing be fair to my child to have his siblings full grown? Will my child want to be parented by me? Will my child hold me responsible for the accident?

    Well meaning individuals have given me enlightening books. Some of them describe near death experiences that are meant to make real the vision of an afterlife. I have learned from these, but do not consider their teachings, necessarily doctrinal and make a point to remember that those writings are not where testimony comes from.

    I have found comfort in Hugh B. Brown’s parable of the currant bush, understanding that being cut down is a manifestation of love and part of God’s plan for us as individuals. A non-member friend of mine sent me a book called, ‘When Things Fall Apart,” by Pema Chodron. This book gives a Buddhist perspective of dealing with suffering. I will quote an excerpt from which I am studying now, not that I have mastered any of this, but I am seeking understanding:

    “We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.”

    Now I am trying to reconcile this with the currant bush parable, which includes the teaching that having the woody branches cut down will make the currant bush ‘better’ in that it will serve it’s purpose of bearing more fruit under the direction of the gardener. Correct my interpretation, anyone, if you feel I am off track, but if the teaching from the Buddhist perspective is applied to the currant bush parable, the bush should be content to be cut down NOT to become laden with fruit, but simply because that is what currant bushes have always been subject to. Indeed the currant bush in Elder Brown’s story is not guaranteed that it will be free from plant disease, lightning, vandalism or other mortal pitfalls. If there is a ‘guarantee’ of bearing fruit, the bush would have to look for it in the afterlife, as the mortal life could be cut down at any time.

    Though I still adhere to the LDS oriented goal of becoming a better person through overcoming pain, I also live with the realization that I will be imperfect throughout my mortal life. I will always be subject to temptation and fall to sins from which I will need to repent. My spirit will have a permanent wound from the loss of a child prematurely. This wound binds me to my ancestors and other kin who have had this kind of human experience that has happened from the beginning of time.

  28. Nate on August 21, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Nathaniel, “treating suffering as an aberration leads to more suffering.” If that was your meaning, then I agree, and I’m sorry if I didn’t understand.

    DQ asks: “Do you lose some spiritual growth in the process while seeking to extract only the physical rewards of the garden even though you still put in a lot of work? Absolutely.”

    Well, I’m not sure if this is true. It it takes you less time to pull weeds, maybe you can use that time to go on a meditative walk, or write a book, or read a book, and that would be just as good, or better.

    It’s sort of related to the experience RH is having, I think. RH is trying to reconcile her (or his) loss with the parable of the current bush, that is, looking for some kind of transcendent fruit, growth, or understanding that is supposed to come through this experience. But it seems to me she is finding greater consolation in simply knowing that suffering is universal.

    I’m reminded of the movie Shadowlands, when C.S. Lewis starts out by preaching confidently about how God uses trials to shape and mould us into better people. But at the end of the film, he is seen holding a little boy who has lost his mother to cancer, and he has no words. All he can do is hold the boy in his arms, while the boy says he no longer believes in God.

    There are no words. That is the message of the Book of Job. Chapters and chapters of words from Job and his friends are all shown to be dross. What is the answer? A vision of God’s glory in the Leviathan and Behemoth. Man is nothing. God is everything. In the face of this meaningless, we try to avoid suffering as much as possible, and that is always a good thing in my opinion.

  29. Nathaniel Givens on August 21, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Nate-

    Part of my argument was that treating suffering as an aberration leads to more suffering, but another part was to oppose this logic:

    we try to avoid suffering as much as possible, and that is always a good thing in my opinion.

    It is never good to seek out suffering for it’s own sake, but it is not always good to avoid suffering either. There are lots of cliched examples, but they are cliche because they are true. For example: if you want to avoid the suffering that comes from a broken heart, don’t love anyone. More seriously, if you want to avoid the quiet, gradual broken heart of watching your children grow away from you, don’t have children.

    On the one hand: inflicting pain and suffering on others with the idea that God will turn it to their good is a bad idea.

    On the other hand: infanticide would guarantee your child doesn’t suffer and get them a free ticket to the celestial kingdom, but it is also horrific.

    The only way to avoid all suffering is to avoid all life. We must find a balance between working to mitigate suffering wherever we can, and recognizing that suffering (as a category) is never going to go away and that some strategies of suffering-avoidance are a cure that is worse than the disease.

    So no: I do not think it is always good to avoid suffering.

  30. Nathaniel Givens on August 21, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    RH-

    I’m truly sorry for your loss. I don’t pretend that I can understand it, but I appreciate your beautiful contribution here, and especially this:

    My spirit will have a permanent wound from the loss of a child prematurely. This wound binds me to my ancestors and other kin who have had this kind of human experience that has happened from the beginning of time.

    My own thoughts on this issue–pain and suffering in this life–are always evolving, but I do have found useful insights from Buddhist philosophies. In my case it was Zen Buddhism that I found helpful, although I cannot pretend to have any deep insights or learning.

    I will say that one thing I really admire is when people refuse to give into pain and–despite feeling that they can never win–insist on trying to recover something beautiful or valuable from the experience anyway. I think that’s what you’re doing. It’s a defiant kind of faith, and one that I hope to emulate in my own life.

  31. Nate on August 21, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Nathaniel, i think you are wanting to say it is better to have lived and have lost than never to have lived. I agree with that. I guess I just am saying that a commitment to elevating suffering reflects a proper understanding of the wretched meaninglessness it often holds, not that it should prevent one from living or taking risks that might lead to a fuller life. I guess I’m probably being too categorical. I just want to respect the horror that suffering is for many on this planet.

  32. DQ on August 21, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Suffering is horrible and we probably don’t want to sing it’s praises. Nevertheless, a young Elder Kimball once did just that when he quoted the following poem:

    Pain stayed so long I said to him today,
    “I will not have you with me any more.”
    I stamped my foot and said, “Be on your way,”
    And paused there, startled at the look he wore.
    “I, who have been your friend,” he said to me,
    “I, who have been your teacher—all you know
    Of understanding love, of sympathy,
    And patience, I have taught you. Shall I go?”
    He spoke the truth, this strange unwelcome guest;
    I watched him leave, and knew that he was wise.
    He left a heart grown tender in my breast,
    He left a far, clear vision in my eyes.
    I dried my tears, and lifted up a song —
    Even for one who’d tortured me so long.

    Elder Kimball had typhoid fever as a child, had palsy, had several sister and a mother die while he was still young. It would seem he knew something of suffering, and was just just preaching from the pulpit. As Eve said, passing through sorrow will help us *know* good from evil. It’s one thing to point it out, one thing to meditate and reflect in our journals. It’s an entirely other thing, that brings real knowledge into our souls, a kind of testimony if you will, to actually experience it.

    This is definitely one of those defining contradictions of Mormonism’s doctrine that in many ways proves its own worth.

  33. Craig H. on August 22, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for posting, Nathaniel, and to RH for the heartbreaking account.

  34. rogerdhansen on August 23, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    This is tough subject for me. I strongly disagree with title: “We were made to suffer.”

    Many modern-day Mormons have a persecution complex. This is based on the Church’s past history and not present-day realities. This complex was highlighted a few years ago when Elder Oaks compared events that happened to the Church post Prop 8 with the persecutions and suffering of blacks during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Mormons like to be seen as a suffering minority. And we need to get past this. And to a certain extent Nathan is playing into this paranoia.

    It is easy for us in the developed world to say that “we were made to suffer.” Most of us do not experience real physical pain. In reality, most physical pain is reserved for people living in developing countries. And soon, half the members of the Church will be living in developing countries.

    I’m not convinced that suffering is necessary. And as Nathan rightly notes, science and technology are moving rapidly toward being able to totally alleviate physical pain and are making strides toward easing emotional suffering. Technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among humans, replacing suffering with gradients of well being.

    In his last paragraph, Nathan seems to making the point that suffering is important during our earthly sojourn. But that things will be better in the next life. To me, this is just an excuse for not doing anything about easing the suffering of others during this lifetime.

    I don’t think that Mormonism theologians have a good explanation for suffering and its role in God’s Plan of Happiness, particularly in light of evolving science and technology.

  35. DQ on August 23, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    Roger, I almost wonder if you’ve been paying attention. Eve – better to experience sorrow to know good from evil. Nephi, Adam fell that men might be… That’s pretty much the choice of Adam and Eve. There is no progression without suffering being part of the plan. Transgress and experience suffering, choose faith and hope on the path to becoming like God. Mormons have the best explanations of suffering and iit’s role in God’s plan.

    The description you provided about drugs and science smoothing out the bumps in the human condition were so frightening it made me fear for the future where mankind presumes it can actually do those things without a cost, thereby removing our ability to truly understand by experience both sorrow and joy.

    Brown robbing the martyr of his death you also rob his reward. By denying Christ the ability to suffer on the cross you would damn us all. By removing our cross for us means you would remove the burden and attendant growth of discipleship.

  36. DQ on August 23, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Somehow “by” was ‘corrected’ into brown..

  37. rogerdhansen on August 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    DQ. My daughter-in-law had brain surgery to help cure her epilepsy. I had by-pass surgery to cure my heart disease. Are you saying that we should have suffered? Drugs can be used to ameliorate depression, are you against their use? Are you saying that we should be martyrs and go without treatment?

    In the future there will an increasing number of medical, scientific, and technological advances that will cure or ease a wide variety suffering. Do you really fear for that future?

    “By robbing the martyr of his death you also rob his reward” is the cry of the fanatic.

  38. RH on August 25, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    Roger,

    I have an unwanted gut reaction to hearing the term ‘plan of happiness’ now. It can only be a plan associated with happiness because you know the misery from the happiness. It is equally a plan of misery as far as our mortality is concerned. By living the gospel, we come much farther to having the balance on the side of happiness, but there is no guarantee.

    No, we should not avoid seizure preventing and heart protecting treatments, but the treatments themselves require the enduring of suffering and convey risks. Technological advances may cure and ease suffering of one kind, but other kinds will inevitably be there. Technically a bypass surgery does not ‘cure’ heart disease as it continues on in the other branches of the cardiac circulation that were not bypassed even though you can modify the risks greatly. It gives you the blessing of symptom relief and protection from the infarction of heart muscle as the end result of heart disease, but the number of years for which it blesses you is still up in the air.

    Drugs to ameliorate depression can be helpful, but they also can increase suffering by their association with weight gain, headaches, or insomnia. I took a lot of Tums when I was experiencing a week of planning a funeral, but I chose not to seek any ‘sedative’ that would simply numb my mind to the new reality of loss.

    The take away I get from this in my experience with grief is not to view suffering as something extraordinary to the human experience. We should not be martyrs ourselves by living with angina when there is relief available, but we should not fear suffering as if it is an “end”, or for that matter, a “beginning”. It is intertwined with our passion, just as death is intertwined with life.

  39. rogerdhansen on August 26, 2014 at 9:47 am

    RH, First, I think you are missing my point which is medical, scientific, and technological ADVANCES are increasingly alleviating physical suffering. This is a very dynamic situation. In the future, they will cure heart disease. Your children and grandchildren will not need to suffer the same levels of physical (and to some degree emotional) pain that we do. In developed countries there will be no need to make sad statements like “We were born to suffer.”

    Second, and more importantly, the worship or blind acceptance of suffering should not be an excuse for not helping to alleviate the pain of those living around us. To stand by and let them suffer frequently through no fault of their own is not a plan I can accept.

  40. RH on August 26, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Roger,

    I disagree with your overall philosophy and do not intend my disagreement to convey anything disparaging toward you personally. A catastrophe occurred in 1996 when the drug oxycontin was touted as the technological advance to treat chronic non-cancerous pain. The marketing followed that the availability of this drug necessitated treatment of pain with as high a dose of this opiate medication as it took to have a patient say that it was working.

    This led to a huge burden of opiate addiction and has created the world in which we now live:

    •Accidental opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of death in adults between the ages of 35 and 55 (above cancer, suicide, car accidents, heart attacks, smoking, HIV, etc).
    •One quarter of high school students have used prescription opioids to try to get high. (Prescription opioids, taken from mom’s or grandpa’s medicine cabinet, are put into a fish bowl by the door at the party, and then the fish bowl is passed around and everyone takes a handful.)
    •ERs now see as many cases related to prescription drug abuse as to illegal drug abuse.
    •High school students now look forward to having their wisdom teeth taken out because they know they will end up with a prescription for opioids afterwards.

    The US has 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes 85% of the world’s prescription opioids. It is unimaginable that the US population accounts for 85% of the worlds physical suffering from pain. You hear accounts from visitors to less developed countries about how happy the people are despite their acquaintance with suffering, and lack of access to some of the advances we consider ‘necessities’.

    Quoting the words of Dr. Malcolm Butler:

    “By asking every patient about pain at every (office) visit, we had “medicalized” pain. Pain is a normal component of everyday life – it is not an anomaly…. Pain is a protective reflex. It galvanizes us to improve and change. Removing it does the opposite, allowing us to become victims and to stagnate.”

    Of course, this is just one example of a technological advance that has such consequences that the use of it should be questioned. I think you are too closely equating disease–physical or mental–with suffering. Many diseases can be survived without associated significant suffering–either because of medical technology or by the innate gifts found within individuals. Of course we should look for technology to reduce disease, but how a population ‘suffers’ with disease is highly influenced by cultural expectations.

    I hope our society, as it advances, is more compassionate towards people with suffering because of greater knowledge of mental health and greater empathy. But I do not believe that empathy should lead the medical community to always say ‘yes’ to patients who believe the answer to their suffering is technological advance.

    We should not ignore suffering or live with it in a vacuum. Nevertheless, we should not forget that it is not an anomaly and that it galvanizes us to improve and change. When I was a child, I thought that taking a long trip in a car was suffering, but when I learned that the destination was worth the inconvenience of the journey, the ability to patiently endure a car ride increased.

  41. Michael McNew on August 27, 2014 at 4:06 am

    People suffer more when they make themselves victims. Here a radio host presents how people can learn from psychopathic traits to get what they want in life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UzOT8Ftljc I believe the host has interviewed famous psychopaths, including one Mormon woman lawyer, and so it is based in facts. I remember a documentary where a research psychologist who was studying psychopaths knew when it was time for men with the condition were being interviewed because the waiting room was always filled with their gorgeous wives and girlfriends.
    Why suffer needlessly?

  42. rogerdhansen on August 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Michael, I agree with you statement “People suffer more when they make themselves victims.” Let’s help those who are truly suffering and not those that image they are suffering. The Church and its membership need to get over our persecution complex.

  43. Anon on August 27, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    The glorification of psychopaths as noted in comment 41? Bad idea. You might be interested to read this recent discussion about that book, and particularly one comment by a woman who lived with a psychopath.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/theprotojournalist/2014/08/21/341858696/is-there-such-a-thing-as-a-good-psychopath

    The woman said, in part:

    I lived with a boyfriend for nearly 5 years who is a genuine Sociopath/Psychopath. There were many aspects of his life that were admirable, fun, positive, etc that were due to his ability to charm, to be ultra-organized, to put himself first in a way that apparently avoided all hurt by others, his sense of self-preservation was amazing. His focus in his business was impressive, he was extremely successful financially and ran his business with determination, coolness and a strange ability to look only at logic, putting emotions aside that trip the rest of us up.

    He was also extremely impulsive, bold, and reckless and put his own life and my life at risk numerous times for a thrill….

    Unfortunately, there is of course the dark side; he was extremely emotionally abusive and cruel. He was a Master Manipulator like I’ve never seen before or since…. And I’m skipping over all the really ugly stuff… Getting away from him was tricky, it took real planning and strategy. After leaving, it took me several years to ‘deprogram’ myself from his twisted logic, the low self-esteem, the warped sense of reality that he had managed to create in my mind.

    Anyway, I’m away from that now thankfully. My point was really just to say that yes, there are positive aspects of a Psychopath, they can be quite fun, driven and interesting. But the dark side is hardly worth the price of admission into the life of a Psychopath…

  44. Nathaniel Givens on August 27, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    rogerdhansen-

    The Church and its membership need to get over our persecution complex.

    You keep bringing that up.

    No one else has.

  45. rogerdhansen on August 29, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Sorry Nathaniel that I have brought up “persecution complex” in at least two comments. I hope it didn’t cause you too much suffering. Actually since “we are made suffer,” maybe it is better if my comments did make you suffer just a little. :)

  46. Michael McNew on August 31, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Anon, most people who do people wrong are not psychopaths. There are good ones and there are bad ones. I am sure there are psychopathic leaders of our faith, as there are psychopaths who win presidential elections. Like I said, there are things you can learn from them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UzOT8Ftljc It might make one a better missionary.
    By the way, some people complained when the Noah movie came out last year and that Noah was depicted as a psychopath. I believe there are a few good reasons to suggest he might have been.

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