Terrence Malick, one of the great modern film makers, began his career as a philosopher. So its no surprise that his work evokes existential and moral themes. In his film The Thin Red Line, a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” In the brute carnage of war, the degradation, loss, and callousness, Malick asks one of the hardest moral questions that we ask ourselves in real life: What will being good do for me? Why should I remain decent when the world takes advantage of me? Why should I stand on principle when others merely calculate? These questions are easy to answer when life is good, but what about when it turns dangerous? What about during times of loss and despair? When we are harmed by others or by the natural processes of a blind universe?
This question is the practical one we ask, in the face of that which philosophers call the problem of evil. When we suffer we then turn to reality and ask, Why? At this point we begin to construct a narrative through which we will experience and respond to evil - to the absence of goodness, or to its opposite. At a later point in the film a voice asks: “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
What I want to focus on is our response to these questions. I want to ask, Who do we become in response to these questions? The question of, Why be good or living in a cruel world? And, How do I relate to world which has such evil in it?
Let's begin with a favourite example of mine: betrayal. Why this example, which I use often? Well the psychologist Jordan Peterson captured it more clearly than many when he said, "The people who have been really hurt, have been hurt by deceit. You get walloped by life, there's no doubt about that. However people can handle earthquakes, and cancer, and even death. But they can't handle betrayal, and they can't handle deception. They can't handle having the rug pulled out from under them by people they love and trust. That just does them in. It hurts them psycho-physiologically, it damages them. But more than that, it makes them cynical and bitter, and viscous and vengeful. And then they start to act all that out in the world. And that makes it worse."
People sometimes quote the philosopher Nietzsche - "What doesn't kill me just makes me stronger" - in a way that is pure fantasy. As Peterson's points implies, what doesn't kill my body can certainly kill my soul. To be fair, though, maybe Nietzsche is referring to the soul as much as the body - what doesn't kill my spirit can make me stronger. In the same way that weights tear my muscles but build them. If that's the case then Nietzsche has a point: if our "soul" survives the evil done to us, such as a betrayal, then we may become wiser and stronger through it. We may make our lives even better, especially given that much of the dross in us (the naivety, the cowardice, the deluded contracts we make with life) gets burned away, and we eventually emerge a different person. Peterson shows, of course, that evil can kill the soul, that by such suffering we can become cynical, bitter, and vengeful, in spirit and action. This is one answer a person can make to those two questions: How should I see the world, and who should I become, in the face of evil and suffering?
I have been fascinated my whole life by the ways we can become worse or better in the face of suffering. It's no simple matter, for while much of us is determined, and in complicated ways, we also have this vital spark of freedom, this essence of our humanity. My understanding of things has changed as I've matured, so that while I have always resisted absolute determinism (which always proves to be an incoherent philosophical position) yet I see more and more determinism, the more time I spend on this Earth. This has been good, because I am more accepting of more things, I feel less disturbed by this society of evolved monkeys in which I dwell and am a part. When it comes to the question of freedom in the face of suffering, when I was younger I thought that you suffer something terrible such as a betrayal and then you face a cross-roads: the temptation to become bitter, versus the option to be better, to remain loving and to grow. You have a choice about which path and then you walk down it. I believe that this old belief made me subtly judgmental toward bitter people. I now see things differently: when the suffering is deep enough, we are automatically thrown into a hell, in this case a hell of anger, hatred, and even vengefulness. The decision we face comes afterwards: whether to remain there or to try to find our way back. That's where freedom comes in - the buttons of our psyche have already placed us in a bitter place.
The journey back can be a hard and long one. But it's the difference on the one hand between living in hell, destroying the meaning of your life, becoming a person whose life is reduced to licking and displaying wounds. And perhaps taking revenge. Or, on the other, becoming a person whose soul is bigger than their suffering, who chooses to accept the pain of life and to become an ever more loving, wise, strong human being nonetheless.
Ultimately, the first individual chooses to be a slave: they let who they are as a person, be dictated by what people and the world do to them. The second is free: regardless of what is done to them, they choose what they do, who they become.
Goodness and meaning will not protect you from suffering. But a commitment to them, a faith in their reality, can enable you to live with your suffering. It can enable you to find them, along with other things such as personal worth, happiness, love, a sense of connection with the world. It is an antidote to despair. And it is an antidote to the hardness, hate, and bitterness that is so tempting or which automatically takes hold of us after certain experiences. When you maintain your commitment to goodness and love, even in the midst of pain and the instinct to hate, you are centering yourself on something deeper or higher. There's a kind of mystery here, and there's no argument I can provide for this (of course, there's no argument for anything this deep, our worldviews are not based on reasoning). Socrates, our greatest philosopher, asked whether it is better to suffer evil than to do it. He concluded that it is. But he could provide no argument. It was a way of living, a meaning he found in life and gave to it. Some people thought him a fool for that. Others were inspired, but if they really thought about it then they also found it astonishing and hard to hold. It is a radical assertion of something trancendent in a world which can be terrible. As when I use the word soul, to speak here of something transcendent is not to speak of a metaphysical reality, a substance, but rather something that is absolute in our lives. Commitment to goodness no matter what, to remaining a loving person regardless of what is done to me (which is compatible with fighting against any evil done to me), won't save us from suffering. But it may well save us from despair in our suffering. despair is the root of all rot in the soul: all bitterness and revenge.
When a person is struck a blow which shatters them - their child suicides, their best friend betrays them with their partner - they may discover that their previous belief in goodness was in part a calculating bargain with reality. "If I am good then life will not hurt me." This is what the dead soldier in Malick's film is telling us through his questions. He is asking what our love will amount to. What it will withstand. Are we willing to face our suffering with something better in us, better than the suffering? Or will be became whoever the suffering makes of us? Evil can break our body or shatter our soul, we can have little choice in that matter. But what spirit will we choose to live in over the long-term? That's our choice. It's what the ancient Greek philosophers referred to as the divine spark in every person.