When it comes to grief - death, separation, loss - to think of the truth is to be in pain. A person asks, "Why can't I just see this differently, feel differently?" But they are trapped by reality, by something they can avoid only by distraction or delusion.
In many cases of suffering the pain is rooted in one's interpretation of things. For example a person feels disregarded by others, without realising that others are simply absorbed in their own concerns. By shaping one's perspective the problem may go away. Many people, drawn to the fantasy that they can ultimately protect themselves from suffering, imagine that this example is the paradigm of all suffering. But many cases of suffering are not like this - they exist in reality, and must be endured, and any attempt to reduce them to distorted thinking is a form of evasion. Furthermore, when that attitude is taken to the real suffering of others, it is a form of cruelty. A violent assault, a childhood of abuse, a terrible loss, are realities that must be faced as real.
Reality is made of basic elements, such as time. People often speak of time as relative, but it is also an iron law. For example you and I are ageing and there is nothing we can do about it. When suffering is real then time is something that must be endured. We labour through the hours. Furthermore it is because there is time that there is suffering. In the same way that because we are bodily there is suffering. For, thanks to both, we are unable simply to think ourselves out of the difficulty. Because while we can forget mere abstractions, time and bodily pain (which includes emotional pain) pins us down, in a time and a place, like a butterfly on a board.
And yet, for this very reason, we can transcend. Not transcend the suffering, but become changed. Suffering, when it represents a reality we come up against, may operate like a sharpening stone, honing us with every recurrence. In suffering many emotions may swirl, often contending with one another, chaotic and fighting. At a deeper level a war develops between hope and fear, love and hate. We have a choice between them, the ability to consent to one or the other. But this must be done in time, in the repetition; we must endure making this painful consent over and again, compelled to choose each time through the pain. And we are slowly shaped by this repetition. If we choose the good each time we become better people. The suffering then changes from a hell to a purgatory, to use a medieval distinction: whereas hell is pure absence, pure suffering, in purgatory there is suffering but also hope and love, a forward movement.
We are beings who suffer in time. I have always been interested in the subtle aspects of this truth. Of late I have reflected on the idea of fidelity to the future. That is a form of hope, often born as the risk of loving that which is not yet. Loving without an object, but with a space for the unknown object. An important person or meaning waiting up ahead. That offers us strength and consolation, but in a paradoxical way, for it is also a waiting without consolation. It is to attend, which means to look, to listen, and also to wait upon. In this context suffering may again be used, in a variation upon the notion above of being shaped through pain in time. To be faithful to the future is to let my present suffering shape me: to become the kind of person I am needed to be, that they need me to be, up ahead at a meeting toward which I am moving, and which I do not yet know. To maintain fidelity through time in the midst of suffering, and without adequate consolation at the present time, is again to be honed. It is to purify and strengthen the heart.
So the secret to being transformed through suffering is not to find a cure for it, but a use. A transcendent use. That may in no way diminish the pain, and it may make it worse for a time, though often it lessens it, provided one is focused not on lessening it but on using it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Artwork: Kathe Kollwitz
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.