Sunday, January 13, 2008

Suffering 3

I shall begin this post with a longish quotation which I deem apt to my present musings.  I was just dipping in and out of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's international bestseller Long Way Round (Time Warner Books, 2004) - after all they have proved that it is possible to ride all the way around the world by motorbike.  Here is the relevant quotation:

A few weeks later, we arrived at the first big river in Siberia.  It was too wide, too fast and too deep to cross on a motorbike.  There was a bridge, but it had collapsed.  I thought Charley would be itching to get ahead, impatient with the hold-up.  But he was in his element.  He knew that someone or something would be along to help.  The delays were the journey.  We'd get across is when we got across it.

I understand now that it didn't really matter that we hadn't stopped beside that cool, fast-flowing Mongolian river.  The imperfections in our journey were what made it perfect.  And maybe we wouldn't be in Magadan now if we had not got that burning desire to keep going.  After all, the river would always be there.  Now that I knew what was out there, I could always return. (opus citatum, p. 3)

Long Way Round is a marvellous little travel book - the account of a journey taken together on motorbike.  In a way all physical journeys are metaphors for the journey that is life.  In other terms, all long journeys are really pilgrimages on the road to self-knowledge.  In the above quotation McGregor italicises "were."  Therein he has realised that most fundamental insight of all pilgrims, of all kindred spirits, of all searchers and explorers, of all spiritual travellers, namely that the journey is indeed the destination.  Hence all spiritual traditions talk about the pilgrim journey and the necessity for the pilgrim to live in the present or in the "now."  So for McGregor the delays became not alone part of the journey, but were actually and fundamentally the journey.  Another sentence from the second paragraph quoted above is also very important, I feel, namely where he says that the imperfections in their journey were what made it perfect.  In a real sense here we have another deeply spiritual insight namely that reality is a whole that comprises polarities or oppositional realities or antinomies, call them what you wish.  The poets William Blake, S.T. Coleridge and W.B. Yeats were obsessed with oppositional realities or polarities.  They felt and believed that it was the polar tension between these opposites that gave a dynamism to life; that, indeed, in a very real sense they defined the very essence of life or living.  How can one know the good if you do not experience the bad?  How can you know pleasure if you do not feel pain?  How can you know perfection if you don't know imperfection?  A beginning makes no sense unless there is an end.  Life in a very profound way is meaningless without its contrariety or opposite, namely death.

In previous posts I have alluded to different attempted theodicies - the Augustinian, the Irenaean, the more recent ones advanced by the likes of the theologian John Hick - which tried and try to square Good and Evil in the world and how a good God could allow evil and senseless suffering.  See the following links : Augustinian Theodicy and Irenaean Theodicy

Trying to explain why things happen as they do can drive us crazy.  At an existential level we all cry out, "Why me?" or "Why was I singled out to bear this or that cross?"  However, at our less angry and more placid and accepting moments we realise all too well that the opposite question is also a very true one namely "Why not me?" "What's so special about me that I should not have to suffer this or that?"  Life is all about luck (or synchronicity, which I have explained elsewhere in these pages), I feel, and making the best of what life has deemed fit to have given us.  Believers will talk about the providence of God and use all shades of theological and spiritual language to put across their point.  However, I feel their God is terribly selective.  Some people believe in fate or fatalism. This is the way things were meant to be, and that is that.  I have mentioned the great theoretical and cosmological physicist Stephen Hawking in these pages before.  He sees life as a question of luck, and that each of us should quit complaining and make the best of the "hand of cards" we have been dealt.  Hawking, despite being severely handicapped by ALS (or Motor Neuron or Lou Gehrig's disease) has a stoical attitude to life (in fact, Stephen is a gentle type of atheist, I feel): Here he explains his philosophy of life in his own words:

I think I'm happier now than I was before I started.  Before the illness set in I was bored with life.  I drank a fair amount, I guess, didn't do any work.  It was really a rather pointless existence.  When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have. (quoted, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, eds., Michael White and John Gribben, Viking, 1992, page 192)

...One has to be grown up enough to realize that life is not fair.  You just have to do the best you can in the situation you are in.  (ibid., p. 293)


Trying to explain why things happen as they do can and does drive us crazy. In like manner, I feel that in places Albert Camus drove himself crazy with his stated desire to seek clarity above all in all things.  No full clarity exists in this world.  No complete one hundred percent explanation exists.  Once we jettison such Utopian ideals we can then be much more realistic and in fact much happier in ourselves.  As quoted in these pages before, Professor Ivor Brown argues for the abandonment of the "desire to be happy" because it is a foolish and unfulfillable desire.  Contentment and acceptance of one's lot might be nearer the point, though.  When we stop fighting against the tide and begin to use our energy to survive by going with the flow we surely will draw some contentment from our journey.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took in Boston in March 2002 of the sculpture depicting the Irish Famine

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