Suffering and medicine.

What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.


This, from Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, is the lesson I struggled to learn as a child growing up with pain, and longing for love and happiness until I decided to turn against love and happiness as riches I was not meant for and therefore to be scorned. Instead of the disappointment of seeking, and failing to find, love, I achieved the success of not wanting it.

A few years ago I remarked to a friend at a work-related dinner that I could tell that she was in love because she talked like she didn’t care if anyone could hear. It’s strange to think today after reading this that I talked that way—with παρρησία, as the ancient philosophers called it—when I closed my heart to happiness. Eventually I met someone whose heart broke to hear me insist that I was not made for happiness, and who knocked until the door opened both to wounding and to love.

And she has since loved and wounded me more deeply and more painfully than any other person I have known. And I would die seven times rather than to have lived a hundred lives without her.

I suppose that this problem of which Merton speaks, in the context of his Father’s deadly illness, is related to the hedonistic religion of which those devoted to the advance of medical technology as an unqualified good are the high ministers. If the prolongation of life and the avoidance of pain are unqualified goods, then the religion will demand all the resources it can acquire in the service of these goods, just as other religions expend generations of wealth and labor on building altars and domes.

It was intensity of suffering that never let me believe (and of course it must be a belief, since neither it nor its antithesis can ever be proven this side of the grave) that there is no God. It has only been in the times of greatest ease and comfort that I have had my greatest doubts.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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