Wednesday, 21 November 2012

(Ig)noble suffering and the persistence of faith

'I have suffered too much in this life not to expect another….All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment; I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath.' - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Noble suffering we can endure. Perhaps it is for a worthy ideal that we suffer, perhaps at the hands of a brutish tyrant who would crush our spirit and vanquish our will. In the face of such suffering, we stiffen our resolve and harden our hearts and know that we will not be broken. We know that the pains we suffer today will be rewarded tomorrow with glorious redemption. Our suffering will be recognised as worthy and righteous. And knowing this, we can endure it.
But most suffering is nothing like that. Most suffering is appallingly mundane. Maliciously quotidian. Disastrously ordinary. Bills must be paid. Rent found. Mortgages kept up. We make our weary way to work. We are anonymous among the anonymous crowd. Our fellow-sufferers. We toil at our jobs, unsure why. We make our way home, our minds numb, our souls worn.
None of this produces the obvious signs of suffering, of servitude, of punishment. There are no marks of the lash across our backs, no chains about our feet, nothing to suggest that here is noble suffering. There is nothing noble in eternal tedium and the knowledge that tomorrow will be unrelentingly like today. And this simply makes the suffering harder to endure. There is no promise of redemption, no promise that one day someone will say, ‘See how he suffered for his cause. See how he endured and how he fought for freedom or justice or something decent on the TV’. There is, that is to say, no point to our suffering, and it is this – this abject pointlessness – which so strips it of anything noble. The worst malady a human can suffer is an abiding sense of pointlessness. Without a reason why, the smallest pin-prick can become a torment worse than anything imagined in Dante’s hell. But give us that reason, explain to us why, and then we can endure.
Those like Richard Dawkins or the late (and tediously boorish) Christopher Hitchens who shriek hysterically about the evils of faith are like an excitable teenager who has just discovered Nietzsche and goes around daringly proclaiming to the world that God is dead. While it’s excusable in a teenager, it becomes less so once a person is of more advanced years, say twenty. From the comfortable and lofty heights which zealots such as Dawkins proclaim their message, it is easy to be unbowed by the meaninglessness of it all, but if your life is not quite so privileged, or yours is a disposition – unelected – which simply can find no comfort in science and reason, then faith may be all you have to make this life bearable. And so be it.

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