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   Chapter 14 SUFFERING

Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 19131

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The problem of the meaning of suffering and evil in the world is the greatest natural mystery that man has to face. It has raised the question as to whether life is worth living or not in some minds. It causes a great many people to be disturbed about the meaning of life and has led some sensitive people to conclude that there cannot be an overseeing, all-wise Providence since otherwise He would surely prevent all the needless suffering there is in the world. Biologists, owing to their occupation with the thought of the struggle for existence in current theories of evolution, have been particularly inclined to say that they could not think that there was a Providence because there was so much of carnage in nature, so much ruthless destruction of life amid suffering for which it would be hard to find any satisfactory reason. There has been no little exaggeration in this view, for a calm review of conditions as they obtain in nature shows not so much of active contest as a healthy competition for the means of existence, in the midst of which death comes to the weakling without anything like the suffering so much emphasized.

It must not be forgotten that the supersensitiveness of the sedentary student must be taken into account in the appreciation of the significance of such a declaration, {255} for the recluse scientist often shrinks from trials that the active outdoors man finds only a stimulus to action, which serve to develop powers and give satisfaction rather than any real suffering. The incentive to have life and to have it more abundantly which this affords to heartier natures makes the poet's expression, forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit, "perhaps we shall be glad to recall these hardships in the time to come", easy to appreciate. Life without suffering would lack that contrast which saves it from the dull monotony that might tempt to waste of energy in dissipation.

Perhaps the best illustration of the actual benefit to man which accrues from suffering is to be found in the fact that one of the surprising results of the presence of the mystery of suffering in the world is that meditation over it has given rise to the five greatest dramatic poems that were ever written. Men contemplating it have been led to the expression of the deepest thoughts that have ever stirred minds. These great poems have come at longer and shorter intervals during four thousand years, from Job, the essential ideas for which probably date from about 1800 B.C., though its literary form is much later, through AEschylus' "Prometheus", Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Calderon's "The Wonder-working Magician", down to Goethe's "Faust." Of these five dramatizations of the mystery of human suffering, recurring poetic impersonations of Hamlet's

"The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!"

the greatest, as conceded by all the critics, is not-as might be expected from the very prevalent impression that man makes wonderful progress down the ages-the {256} last one, Goethe's "Faust", but is the first one, Job. No one has ever expressed so well the only reasonable attitude of mind that man must take in the presence of evil and suffering as this "man of the land of Hus whose name was Job and who was simple and upright and fearing God and avoiding evil", yet who had to bear some of the severest trials that man has ever been called upon to undergo.

Mr. H. G. Wells has recently, in one of his thought-stimulating novels, shown us that verisimilitude of the most modern type could be woven into a story which followed the outlines of the book of Job very closely, so that far from being dead, even the novelty-seeking fiction readers of our generation have brought home to them the fact that Job is still a very living piece of literature. Job's answer to the mystery of evil is that man must confess his inability to understand it, but he can trust the God who "thunders wonderfully with His voice" and "doth great and unsearchable things", "who commandeth the snow to go down on the earth and the winter rain", "who knoweth what ways the light spreads and heat divideth on the earth", "who joins together the shining stars, the pleiads, and can stop the turning about of Arcturus" and "who created behemoth and leviathan and can bind the rhinoceros and has fashioned the ostrich." All that Job can say is, "I know that Thou canst do everything and that no thought can be withholden from Thee", therefore for any impatience that he may have displayed over his suffering he reprehends himself and promises to do penance in dust and ashes,-"and after this Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw his sons and his sons' sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days."


In any consideration of suffering, above all in connection with the related subjects of health and religion, we must not forget that suffering has always been a badge of the race, the common lot of men, so that this very community of it greatly reduces human reaction toward it, since the sufferer cannot help but note that every one else must submit to it as well as himself. At times among those who fail to think deeply enough this may be doubted. The poor may even envy the rich because they suppose that they must by their riches escape suffering, but most physicians soon learn to appreciate very well that the mental discomforts of the wealthy, their disappointed social ambitions, their thwarted aspirations after greater wealth, their envy of their more successful neighbors, but above all their frequent disappointment in their children, though it is almost invariably their very wealth that has spoiled the children and brought their greatest griefs on them, are really the source of much more genuine suffering than the poor have to bear. The worries of life increase with possessions, not decrease, as is fondly hoped, and as the author of the "Romance of the Rose" said some seven centuries ago:

"And he who what he holds esteems

Enough, is rich beyond the dreams

Of many a dreary usurer.

And lives his life-days happier far;

For nought it signifies what gains

The wretched usurer makes, the pains

Of poverty afflict him yet

Who having, struggleth still to get."

Suffering must ever remain a mystery, especially when we take into account the fact that all of us are profoundly possessed by the desire for happiness. We can never {258} probe to the bottom of the mystery and know all its meaning, but at least we can readily understand that in the vast majority of cases, instead of being an evil, it is a good. Nothing so deepens and develops character as suffering. Take the case of our young men who went to the war-so many of them scarcely more than boys, feeling but little of the responsibilities of life-and see how they have come back to us matured by the hardships and sufferings through which they had to go. Thucydides said nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, "There is very little difference among men, only a few of them rise above the great mass because they have gone through hard things when they were young."

It would seem as though we had changed all that, for we are deeply intent on making things just as easy as possible for the young, but a generation ago Gladstone repeated Thucydides' expression with heartiest approval, and twenty years ago John Morley, writing the life of Gladstone, agreed with both of them. I wonder if there are two men in our time who have known men better than Gladstone and Morley.

In that sense suffering is no mystery, and it is easy to see how it is quite literally true that "Whom the Lord loves He chastises." It is the chastisement of suffering that brings out the powers of men. Any one who has not had to suffer in life is nearly always a self-centered egoist without sympathy, but above all without that fellow feeling that comes only from having gone through similar experience. He who has not suffered has not really lived below the surface of his being at all, and he does not know himself. To "know thyself" is the most important thing in the world and the only way to know others. The men who have done great thinking for us {259} have nearly always been men who had to suffer much. It was a blind Milton who wrote "Paradise Lost." When Camo?ns wrote what German and French critics think-and when Germans and French agree about anything there is probably a deep underlying truth in it-the greatest epic in modern time, he was starving in a garret, and his old Indian servant was begging for him on the streets to secure enough to keep body and soul together until the great work was finished. Cervantes wrote what Lord Macaulay called "incomparably the greatest novel ever written" in a debtor's prison, out of which it seemed he might never be able to secure his release. Dante wrote what many think the greatest poem ever written during a long exile in which he learned "how bitter it is to eat the bread of other's tables." Poeta laudatur et alget, "the poet is praised and starves", is as true in our time as when Horace said it three thousand years ago.

Goldwin Smith has brought out very clearly the fact that suffering and evil are really a necessity in the world if this is to be a place of trial, as every one believes, for of course such a belief represents the only satisfactory explanation of life as we have it. Man must have something to strive for and against if there are to be stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things, and so it is not surpri

sing that Doctor Goldwin Smith should have said:

"At the same time, so far as we can discern, character can be formed only by an effort which implies something against which to strive; so that without evil or what appears to us evil, character could not be formed. The existence of evil in fact, so far as we can see, is the necessary condition of active life."

Suffering has been with us from the beginning and it will always be with us; instead of an evil it is one of God's {260} great gifts to man, and yet it sometimes makes little souls bitter and swamps the efforts of those who cannot rise above its trials. Religion is the one element that is supremely helpful in this. Above all in the terminal sufferings of mankind, when there is no longer any question of pain that has to be borne in developing character for this life, the only consolation is that to be derived from religion and a firm belief in a hereafter and an acknowledgment of the fact that somehow God knows best and all is for the best. Without this the awful suffering from cancer which is increasing rather than diminishing, and which seems to be so rooted in human nature that we shall probably never solve its mystery or at least be able to secure human nature against it, as well as ever so many other chronic sources of pain that will never cease entirely until the end of life comes, become hideous specters for humanity, and suffering has very little meaning.

No matter what our attitude of mind may be with regard to suffering, there is no question but that we have to stand it under present conditions in this little world of ours. During the next twelve months scarcely less than one hundred thousand persons will die of cancer in this country and a million and a half victims of the disease will breathe their last throughout the world. When we add up all the accidents in industry and transportation, all the wounds in war and civil life, and then add the affections which in one way or another cause mechanical stoppages of processes in the body, for these are the exquisitely painful conditions, it is easy to understand that we need consolation for suffering. An old medical axiom is that "the doctor can seldom cure but he can often relieve and can always console." There are a good many physicians, however, who feel their ability to console sadly {261} hampered by the fact that so many men and women in our time do not believe in a hereafter for which their sufferings in this world can be a preparation, and that therefore the terminal suffering of existence, of which there is and manifestly always will be such an amount, can mean nothing for them except just so much pain that has to be borne without any good reason that they can see, except that somehow or other things were so arranged in this world that there is ever so much more of pain and suffering than of joy in it.

Two thousand years ago Cicero said in his own oratorical way that it was better for all of us to believe in immortality, for if there was no immortality we should never live after death to know it-which comes very near being an Irish bull by anticipation-while if there was, and we had not believed in it, there would come a very rude awakening to the truth of things. Something of the same problem has been put in much more flippant and yet very expressive way in modern slang. "If there is no other world than this, then some one handed us an awful lemon when we were sent into existence." That is, I suppose, one answer to the mystery of suffering so sure to come to all men in some way or other, and it is one that counsels us to seek the only real consolation for suffering,-that which is to be found in the religious feeling that somehow or other, somewhere, there is some one who knows and understands, and suffering has its meaning. "God's in His heaven and all's well with the world" in spite of the fact that "nature red in tooth and claw" works such sad havoc with her creatures.

What the belief in immortality and the feeling that this life is merely its portico can accomplish in giving a man equanimity in the face of disappointments and patient {262} fortitude under even atrocious pain is very well illustrated by what Professor William James has to say of Thomas Davidson in his essay on him. [Footnote 9] Davidson died of cancer at a comparatively early age, considering the length of life that many scholars enjoy, and for many years he had prepared a large amount of material for that history of the interaction of Greek, Christian Hebrew and Arabic thought on one another before the revival of learning which was to be his Magnum Opus. Davidson was destined never to finish the work. Professor James, who had been an intimate friend and was so close to him in the organization of the Glenmore School of the Culture Sciences on Hurricane Mountain at the head of Keene Valley in the Adirondacks, had felt the possibility of this accident of destiny and had inquired of Davidson with regard to his great prospective work.

[Footnote 9: "Memories and Studies", New York, 1911. ]

"Knowing how short his life might be, I once asked him whether he felt no concern lest the work already done by him should be frustrate, from the lack of its necessary complement, in case he were suddenly cut off. His answer surprised me by its indifference. He would work as long as he lived, he said, but not allow himself to worry, and would look serenely at whatever might be the outcome. This seemed to me uncommonly high-minded. I think that Davidson's conviction of immortality had much to do with such a superiority to accidents. On the surface and toward small things, he was irritable enough, but the undertone of his character was remarkable for equanimity. He showed it in his final illness, of which the misery was really atrocious. There were no general complaints or lamentations about the personal situation or the arrest to his career. It was the human lot, and {263} he must even bear it; so he kept his mind upon objective matter."

Only a profound conviction of personal immortality will enable a man who feels that he is cut off in the midst of his work to bear with patience the final ailment which by its very progress is precluding the possibility of accomplishing the task that he had set himself. Yet this interruption of their chosen labor inevitably comes to a great many men; for death, no matter how late it may seem to onlookers to occur, happens untimely to most of humanity, even though they may count up years far beyond the threescore and ten of the Psalmist.

The greatest resource in the midst of the suffering caused by the war for soldiers and civilians has been religion. It was sadly needed, but it was magnificently employed. Any one who saw how much their religion meant to the soldiers who really had faith will appreciate very well how valuable it was for them. Many a man who had given up his faith, and this was particularly true of the French, found a new power to dare and to do, and also to bear and to "carry on" in the religion that it had seemed they could so readily dispense with before.

Colton, writing a series of aphorisms in "Lacon", a century ago, declared that there are three arguments for atheism more effective than any others,-health and wealth and friends. When we have our health and an abundance of money at command, besides many and powerful friends who seem willing to do everything that they can for us, we feel but little need of God and then many men refuse to believe in him. Necessity is a very precious thing, the mother not only of invention, but of reverence and many other good qualities. But when suffering comes, especially if wealth, and in that case of course, {264} friends, have disappeared, God is a very firm support to lean on. Many a man has found his faith again under such circumstances and has realized how flimsy were the veils which he had allowed to come between him and his recognition of his obligations to his Creator.

The presence of suffering and evil in the world has provided us with one of the most striking arguments for the existence of God and of a hereafter that we have. As Goldwin Smith said:

"This at all events is certain: if death is to end all alike for the righteous and for the unrighteous, for those who have been blessings and for those who have been curses to their kind, the Power which rules the universe cannot be just in any sense of the word which we can understand."

Doctor Carroll, in "The Mastery of Nervousness" [Footnote 10] has summed up the value of suffering as a revealer of power and a bracer of strength in words that are worth remembering. "None knows his real strength till he has faced failure and tasted the bitterness of defeat. Physical and mental suffering and soul pain come to all that endurance may be developed, for without this the strength which conquers can never be. The master man laughs in the face of personal hurts; offenses fail to offend, insults fail to embitter; he turns with shame from the so-called depths of suffering; for him honor and majesty of soul are found upon the heights of suffering." In a word the really brave man does not let himself sink under the burden of suffering but maintains his place and stands up firmly under it. Under these circumstances suffering, instead of being an evil, is a good. After the showing of mercy, man is likest to God when he stands suffering bravely and brings good out of evil even as Providence does.

[Footnote 10: Macmillan, New York, 1918.]


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