The task set for us this week is to examine the causes of the difficult times that we experience through our lives.
First we will sharpen the idea of “difficult times,” for not all difficult times are unpleasant and painful. Some might be readily endurable if not enjoyable, as, for example, what we endure when we see that we are accomplishing a desirable goal. We suffer pain to avoid further pain, as when we submit to the dentist or undergo painful medical treatment. We welcome some difficulties as a challenge to our strength and an opportunity for progress.
For our purposes, we shall assume that we understand the idea of cause. In fact it is notoriously difficult to define precisely, as is evident from several important philosophical discussions. The question is, “What sort of connection is there between event C and event E such that we can say that one event is the cause of another, that event C is the cause of event E?”
The idea of “difficult times” introduces the subjective element, for after all what may be painful for me may seem trivial to my neighbor. But we can deal with “the causes of the difficult times” in an unsentimental way. That is how we will proceed. We shall associate “difficult times” with pain and suffering. These have their causes in one or several of the following:
1. The world of law-governed nature. We may suffer through some “accident” of nature, through virus, storm, flood, fire. Nature is regular and does not change course when its regularities are harmful to us human beings.
2. The impinging of the will of other parties. At times hostile or indifferent, at times sympathetic and well meaning but misguided. We may suffer for being of a particular color or shape or size or race, things we did not initiate. We may suffer for holding certain ideas or ideals, or for practicing certain customs. If we stand firm in our faith and in our expressions of faith, others may take objection and become hostile.. These others may be quite unexpected, even our friends and associates.
3. Our own doing. The decisions one has oneself taken and cannot reverse and the actions one performed often have undesirable consequences. If we think of the great variety of causes, the painful effect has a very different status in different cases. Examples are too numerous and too varied to detail. Fill out possible and actual examples from your own experience and from your imagination and fit them into the above classifications.
We shall ask in each of the three cases what a reasonable response would be. For characteristic responses are not always reasonable.
1. Nature is impersonal>. Since it is regular it is subject to rational investigation. The aim of science is to understand the “workings” of nature. Nature is what it is. Its course may have no positive relation to the desires and feelings of human subjects. That is the kind of world in which we live our lives. Storms, disease, death are all workings out of natural processes. This orderly functioning of nature is a condition for human life. To the extent that we understand the workings of nature we can predict what will happen.
We know that water in the lungs causes death. So we know that floods and storms cause death. Nature is predictable. It is not the case that sometimes water drowns and sometimes under the same circumstances it does not. If nature were not regular and so predictable, we could not live our lives. So we can rely on it. We can thus know how to act in view of this reliability and predictability. We must come to terms with the workings of nature when natural events cause the results that do not favor us by producing well-being.
God created the world by giving nature independence, so that natural events are independent of his will. So suffering that results from the workings of nature are not to be blamed on its Creator. Nor shall we expect its Creator to suspend the workings of nature when it might harm us. The properties of water and fire do not change when a child is out of her depth in the sea nor when people are trapped in a fiercely burning building.
Response: We can do something to control nature, to channel its workings into benefit for ourselves, to assist it to produce well-being and not pain. The standing example of this is the effort of medical scientific research to understand the causes of disease and to find means of neutralising them
2. Human beings cause other human beings suffering. Groups of people exercise power that produces negative consequences. Sometimes they are in horrible agreement to do so.
Sometimes the extent of the pain is not realized. Sometimes men and women do not care what pain they are now causing, nor even have concern for the future pain their decisions and actions will cause. Sometimes they do not even know what pain they are causing. We too may sometimes deliberately choose a course of action that will bring pain. We may deliberately choose a course of action that will channel the course of nature in a perverse and destructive direction. It may also happen by indifference, failure to take decisive action.
Response: We can influence others to making alternative decisions and so to alternative courses of action in many different ways, sometimes by the expression of disapproval or alternatively by commendation, sometimes by clear action: providing opportunities for change of circumstance or of outlook, sometimes simply by means of our presence, by counseling or simply by being friendly. Of course institutions in society are deliberately set up to achieve this goal: prison, reform institutions, welfare groups etc.
3. Decisions I have taken in the past will cause me pain now and into the future. So we regretfully sometimes say, “If I had my time a gain, I would act differently.” We have been the cause in many cases of our own disappointments and woe. Whether out of ignorance, defiance, envy, perversity, laziness, indifference we so often make trouble for ourselves.
But because we can see that it it’s their fault that they are what they now are does not mean that we should deny them sympathy and constructive understanding.
- Try to learn from the past and under similar circumstances not make the same mistakes again.
- If you cannot change the past you can attempt to become reconciled to and constructively employ the present you have now made for yourself. But you will need the wisdom of discernment. We are fortunate if in the bearing of pain and suffering we can achieve serenity, courage and wisdom. Think of the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”
- Intend to act and decide positively and to keep myself aware of the need to be alert to do so.
Knowing the causes of hardship pain and suffering is one thing, Coming to terms with, that is, doing something about, the unique hardship that is ours (or that we think is ours) is another. To understand the cause may help us to understand what in our particular case the appropriate response is to be.
It also helps to cultivate a sense of presence, to feel that God is near and sustaining you in the time of need. This means you never need feel alone. So you can understand the sentiments of the song: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
When you walk through a storm, Hold your head up high, And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky, And the sweet silver song of the lark,. Walk on through the wind, Walk on through the rain, Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown, Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, And you’ll never walk alone.
But a warning here is needed. A sense of presence that alleviates pain is not a substitute for dealing realistically, determinately and patiently with the causes. Otherwise it may be a form of escapism. Nor should we fall into the error of saying, “All will be well in the earth made new. We just put up with things as they are now.” That leads to escapism and quietism. There are inauthentic forms of hope. We must deal determinately with the pain and if possible with the causes of the pain we bear. Then and only then will our hope be authentic.
Finally, you do not have to believe that every time you suffer it is a trial of faith sent by God. Nor should you believe that God is the immediate or even the secondary cause of what happens in your world, or in the world in general. God has created a world independent of himself in which events have their own momentum. God is not the cause of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that overtake the human being. Causes and results have their own momentum. What sort of God would he be who could remove suffering and arrange matters so that the causes of suffering are removed but does not do so.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/71