On Suffering: Christianity and Transcendentalism

The suffering of the children and parents on our border brings up again the age-old question: why does there have to be so much suffering in the world? The short answer is, of course, there doesn’t have to be “so much”–our government is shamefully inflicting needless suffering on these poor families.  But what about suffering more generally?  If there is a loving God, as so many Americans believe, why all this pain and anguish in the world?

The question of suffering resonated powerfully with me this week owing to two separate occurrences.  One was a fantastic piece of theatre, an imagined modern conversation between Emerson and his muse, Margaret Fuller, played out at a picnic in a park in Peterborough, NH by two brilliant actors.   They joke, they eat, they ask about each other’s work, and then they begin to argue about the nature of Beauty. Emerson claims it can be found in all things,   Fuller disagrees, forcefully, and gives him the example of a girl waiting to be picked up by her parent after a long stay at summer camp, sitting on her suitcase, watching all the other children disappearing one by one with their mothers and fathers…But her mother will never come. She has been killed in an accident en route to bringing back her child.   Fuller cannot see any beauty in that scene—it haunts her:  the child growing more and more fearful, more desperate sensing something is wrong…she can’t stop thinking about it.

And yet, Emerson tells her, you are carrying that child with you now, and will be forever. You have wrapped her in your thoughts, your loving thoughts, and won’t let her go—that is a beautiful thing.  To care about someone, to have your heart go out to someone in trouble, someone who is suffering…there is Beauty in that.

At the same time, I’m reading George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, and the good-hearted young protagonist, Dinah, who is devoting her life to helping those in need in a poor mining village, writes  a letter to a friend, describing what happens to her just after dusk each night:

“I sit in my chair in the dark room and close my eyes…and then, the very hardship, and the sorrow, and the blindness, and the sin, I have beheld and been ready to weep over,–yea, all the anguish of the children of men, which sometimes wraps me round like sudden darkness—I can bear with a willing pain, as if I was sharing the Redeemer’s cross.   For I feel it, I feel it—infinite love is suffering too—yea, in the fulness of knowledge it suffers, it yearns, it mourns; … sorrow is then a part of love, and love does not seek to throw it off.  It is not the spirit only that tells me this—I see it in the whole work and word of the gospel.  Is there not pleading in heaven?  Is not the Man of Sorrows there in that crucified body wherewith he ascended? And is he not one with the Infinite Love itself—as our love is one with our sorrow?”

As Thich Nat Hanh said: Of course we have to have suffering, otherwise how would we ever learn compassion?

This is not to excuse the shameful separations forced on these families by our government.   Arguments about Beauty and Love aren’t going to end their suffering.  But as Elliot and Emerson, the Christian voice and the Transcendentalist,  point out, we can, and we must,  find common ground in a world of suffering through the compassion it awakens in us.

Dinah’s letter may be the best explanation of Christian love I’ve ever read.


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