Thursday, August 16, 2007

Some Thoughts on a Response to Personal Suffering

The subject I have been most interested in over the course of my short academic career is the philosophical and practical (existential) problem of evil. It is a subject with which we are all familiar: if God exists and evil and suffering also exist, then God is either evil or weak. He would be evil if he has the power to prevent evil and suffering but chooses not to. He would be weak if he wishes to prevent evil and suffering but cannot.
A theodicy is a defense of God’s goodness (and, to a certain extent, his power) in spite of the existence of evil and suffering (Mormons might say it is a defense of God’s goodness in the midst of and demonstrated in response to evil and suffering). Since I have a personal belief in a loving God, my studies have focused on the varying theodicies formulated within and without the academy. However, in spending long periods of time reflecting on suffering and the existence of a powerful, loving God, I have unexpectedly arrived at the following conclusions. Some of the inspiration for these thoughts come from a book by Dr. C. Terry Warner, a professor at BYU, entitled, The Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves. (I highly recommend this book, by the way). The following are simply some thoughts and reflections about how we can respond to the events and people that we view as causing our pain and suffering:
First, there is a forever unbridgeable conceptual gap between academic or theological discussions on suffering and the experience of suffering itself. The paradox is that the intrinsically experiential nature of suffering precludes attempts to explain it, even though every living thing encounters it. To be understood, it must be lived. Consequently, though useful as a starting point to understand suffering, rational explanation alone will always ultimately be inadequate in providing conceptual justice to suffering. This problem is compounded by the fact that most explanations concerning why suffering occurs are essentially dogmatic, whether the explanation is scholarly or theological. In other words, these explanations are usually, unfortunately, insufficient to produce any sort of healing effect on the one who suffers. As such, they have little value.
That being said, there are nevertheless certain observations on human suffering that have resonated with me, such as the following: As human beings we have the ability to decide what our experiences mean. One of the most damaging lies that we often believe is that this ability is not available to us. There are numerous philosophical implications that stem from this statement. However, I will focus on just a few of them. When I say that I have the ability to decide what an experience means, I mean (pun intended) that I am free to choose the interpretive framework through which I can analyze the experience in a way that it will make sense to me. I can even choose a framework which will promote continued confusion about how to understand the experience. It is up to me to assign the meaning of my experience. I am not talking here about a basic human right; I am talking about a basic human function. Part of what it means to be human is the ability to do this. This also says that I can decide how I feel about my experiences. That does not mean that I don’t have deeply negative reactions to particularly emotional and/or physically intense experiences as they happen to me, but it does mean that the way I reconstruct the past is a choice. I also don’t want to imply that we can simply, through force of will, make a hard experience an easy one. When it was experienced, the experience was genuinely, authentically hard. What I want to say is that we can decide, though this decision may be a difficult and lengthy one, how that same experience will affect us in the present and the future.
This leads to the next observation: Only I, and no one else, can decide what my experiences mean. Consequently, I am completely responsible for the meaning of my experiences. We may be tempted to accept others’ explanations of how to define our experiences, and we are certainly influenced by others in how we define our experiences, especially when we are young. However, because no one shares my “cognitive space” with me I am ultimately responsible for my reconstructions of the past. Once again, that is not a statement of my human right to decide what my experiences mean; it is a statement about how it actually works. We are lying to ourselves if we think that we are ultimately not responsible for the meaning we have provided to our experiences, though that meaning may be and often is very informed by external factors.
Because there is a conceptual gap between academic discussions on suffering and the experience of suffering, and because only we can decide what our experiences mean, it is therefore both impossible and unethical to try and explain the suffering of another person or group, especially to that person or group. Can I successfully tell a group of Holocaust survivors what their experience means and where God was when it happened? Even if I were included in this group, experiencing similar things, I could not tell this group what their experiences mean, because the group is composed of individuals who experienced things individually. Similarly, I cannot tell a rape victim where God was during her experience. In fact, it is often bordering on the immoral to “preach” to a sufferer about God and the meaning of his or her pain. This is because we do not share in the experience of that person, and therefore can never be completely accurate in assisting him or her to bring meaning to his/her suffering. You might have noticed that when we try to do this, we are usually unsuccessful. Most people stubbornly refuse to have their experiences defined for them. Where then, does this leave us? Do we leave others alone to provide meaning to their experiences, hoping they do not define their experiences in a way that will destroy them? No. I believe that understanding principles like these can only do one thing for a person: provide them freedom. Not freedom from the problems of their past, but freedom to see non-destructive ways of defining the past. As I said above, ultimately only the person who has suffered can accomplish this, which brings us to the next point: whether the past blesses or crushes us, stunts our growth or enlarges it, makes us bitter and resentful or charitable and responsive to others, is ours to decide.
For example, consider the story of a woman, whom I will call Jennifer, who was the daughter of a prostitute. She was abused sexually by several men while she was a child. When she became an adult she married a man and they had two daughters. She later learned he had abused their daughters when they were young. She divorced this man and took her daughters with her. Her process of recovery and restoration was not easy or brief. However, she is now a motivational speaker, and has adopted this life motto: ‘I will not let my beginning dictate my end.’ Jennifer chose to provide her past experiences with a meaning that was not only non-destructive, but a meaning that provided her with a unique source of strength and perspective. In other words, it wasn’t the hard experience of her past that made Jennifer strong, simply because she survived it; Jennifer made Jennifer strong, using the past as tool of personal discovery and growth. Other people, experiencing the same events, are broken. But they have broken themselves; it was not the past that broke them. The past is over and done with. That is what makes it the past. If we are broken in the present it is because we continue to maintain our brokenness now, long after the experience has passed. Saying that people are ultimately responsible for their own present brokenness is NOT to say that they are responsible for their experiences, or that they caused the hardness of their experiences; on the contrary, people who have allowed themselves to be broken deserve our compassion and service more than any others. It is to say that we must recognize that they have allowed themselves to continue to be victims, post-experience. They were authentically victimized in the act that occurred to them. However, they are in reality no longer victims of that experience because the experience is no longer occurring in the present.
When the past is crushing us it is because of our present actions, our present willingness to maintain victimhood, to continue our accusations against those that caused us pain, not the past experience itself. The past experience remains in the past. What we currently are doing to define that experience is an action that occurs in the present. It is this action that is crushing us. This action usually consists of accusing the “causal agent” of the experience, whether that is a person, a job, a stressful event, a natural disaster, etc, whatever it was that caused us suffering. When we cease to accuse the causal agent of what it was that caused us pain, we free ourselves of the prison of being a victim. It is accusation in the present not suffering in the past that continues to maintain our brokenness. All suffering, therefore, is present suffering. Take Jennifer in the above story, for example. Jennifer could do nothing to change the past. It had happened and is now fixed in time. Too often this is what we think will heal us: if only the past could be changed, and our suffering never had occurred, then we could be freed from our pain. Of course, we also know that this is impossible. Consequently, because we believe that this is the only way to heal, and we know simultaneously that this is impossible, we end up believing that healing is, in fact, impossible. Then, of course, we despair and bury ourselves more deeply in our victimhood. Jennifer also had no control over justice. She could not guarantee that the men that abused her in her youth, or her husband who had abused her daughters, would ever be brought to justice. Furthermore, even if they were punished for their crimes, Jennifer could not guarantee that her healing would be actualized. Had these men come and asked for Jennifer’s forgiveness, this also could not guarantee that Jennifer would be free of her pain. Jennifer had the power to do one thing and one thing only: decide what the meaning of these experiences would be in her present life, regardless of other events. Once again, her strength or her brokenness would be determined by this ability. Within this framework, there was only one choice she could make to heal: Cease to accuse the causal agents of these experiences. And this is what she did. Once she did this she was free, and could genuinely say ‘My beginning will not dictate my end.’ It did not matter that this experience would forever be a part of her past. It also did not matter whether or not justice was served, or whether her persecutors sought her forgiveness. Again, these were things outside of her control. But, instead of believing that everything was outside of her control, she recognized that there was one thing within her power: the power to stop accusing those who caused her pain. This leads to the final concept: forgiveness.
I believe we have adopted some mistaken notions about forgiveness. This is what we may often believe forgiveness consists of: someone does something to offend or hurt me in some way. Forgiving that person consists of telling that person that the offensive action he/she took can be overlooked, and we can love them in spite of what he/she has done to us. I hope we can see what is wrong with this picture. In engaging in this type of “forgiveness” we maintain, on some level, our accusing attitude toward that person. In other words, we are judging that person and self-righteously declaring that we will bestow forgiveness on this person in spite of this person’s unworthiness, an unworthiness that stems for the person’s offensive act. We will “overlook” the unworthiness and simply love the person in spite of it. However, our accusations remain. The person’s unworthiness remains at the forefront of our relationship with that person, or our concept of that person, no matter how we may try to love him/her.
Let’s put this in perspective. When God forgives us, what is his attitude toward us? I think it is a mistake to think that God similarly just “overlooks” our sins and offensive behavior toward him, because of Christ’s Atonement, and loves us in spite of our unworthy actions. On the contrary, in the pure love of Christ we can find no attitude of accusation whatever. Because the element of accusation does not exist, there is no “in spite of.“ It is love without strings attached, without an insistence that we are still unworthy, but I’ll love you anyway. This is the essence of God saying to us that he will remember our sins no more. In other words, though his knowledge of the past includes our sins, it contains no element of accusation made against our eternal worth because of those sins. Thus, God’s type of forgiveness is really the only type of forgiveness. Of course, we cannot imitate his forgiveness perfectly, nor are we required to. God said he would no longer remember our sins, but only if we repent. This is because when we haven’t repented we continue to accuse ourselves and therefore freely maintain our victimhood because of the ways in which we have betrayed ourselves through our wrong actions (including our accusations of others). Therefore, if we will not forgive ourselves, God cannot “forget” our sins, because we are still insisting our sins be a part of our lives (and this includes our desire to make accusation a part of our lives, whether in accusing ourselves or others), something we are allowed to do because of our freedom.
We, however, also can “remember” the sins of others, especially their offenses against us, no more. And because we are not God, others’ repentance is not required in order to be able to do this. There are many things that only God can do, but this is not one of them. This brings us to an important point: forgiveness involves our own actions, not the hurtful actions of others. When we truly forgive in the way that conforms to the pure love of Christ, we are essentially repenting of our accusing attitude toward the person who caused us pain. We are not engaging in the details of what was done to us; again, we have no control over these. We are doing the only positive, life-affirming thing we have the power to do: ceasing to accuse. Repentance literally means “to turn away from.” Thus, when we repent of our accusing attitude toward another, we are turning away from accusation and turning toward understanding and love. When we are free from accusation, there remains nothing to forgive, at least in the former sense of forgiveness I discussed above. While the actions of the offender are still a reality that occurred in the past, we define that person as no longer an offender in the present.
The proof of all this lies all around us. I believe we all know at least one person who has endured unspeakable horror and evil, and who nevertheless must be described as free in the most important sense of the word. But are they free of never having suffered from those experiences? No. Almost invariably their freedom exists as a result of killing the element of accusation surrounding these past experiences, or never allowing an accusing attitude to define the experience in the first place. We may view these people as superhuman, but what a relief to discover that they are not. They have simply discovered, whether they consciously knew it or not, that maintaining an accusing attitude would prolong their suffering and victimhood. In this they partake of the essence of the Atonement. The Atonement was given so that we wouldn’t have to be superhuman to accomplish what I am discussing. Partaking of the fruits of the Atonement is not as complex of a process as we sometimes believe, as these special people among us have demonstrated.
In sum, we have the power to decide the meaning of our experiences. No one else has this power. It is wrong as well as impossible to decide for someone else what his/her experiences mean and have them accept wholeheartedly our meaning. However, it is not wrong, and it is effective to discuss principles that provide us with a larger, more expansive canvas in which to paint the meanings of our experiences. All suffering is present suffering. Suffering is real and essential for growth and learning in a realm where all human beings have freedom to choose. However, much of our suffering is unnecessary and we are responsible for it. We are responsible for it because the suffering is fed through present actions we are engaging in (accusation) in response to suffering that happened in the past, making ourselves victims. Because we are responsible for this type of suffering, we have the power to stop it. The power to cease our accusations is forgiveness, but a forgiveness that recognizes our need to repent of our accusations in order to be free of them and see the world the way it really is in the present, not a forgiveness that focuses on the offenses of the past. Amazingly, this power is available to anyone anywhere, of any religion or belief, no matter what they have suffered. It becomes possible through the Atonement of Christ (another subject for another time).

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