Smoke, Spit, and Suffering
"I've seen it all and it's nothing but smoke—smoke, and spitting into the wind." Ancient Hebrew Philosopher (The Message).
I love turtles. Those close to me know of my deep sense of connection with turtles. Turtles are fascinating creatures. They are beings of determination, focus, and dedication. Several species spend their whole life swimming, year after year, a round trip covering half the planet simply to lay eggs at a specific location. What I find most captivating about these creatures is the ease and style with which they move while in the water. These animals that struggle so to move about on land, become swift, exquisite mammals in the water. They glide and move with grace, demonstrating a frolicking aspect of their being while in the water.
So, you might imagine my sorrow when I saw the picture that accompanies this post.
This creature that has laid her eggs to insure the continuation of her species, flails her fins as her eggs are dug up and collected to be sold as a delicacy. The helplessness I experience as I view this picture is overwhelming. The senselessness of this event brings me to the place of the Hebrew philosopher. What is the purpose or meaning in this tragic moment?
"It's one fate for everybody—righteous and wicked, good people, bad people, the nice and the nasty, worshipers and non-worshipers, committed and uncommitted. I find this outrageous—the worst thing about living on this earth—that everyone's lumped together in one fate. Is it any wonder that so many people are obsessed with evil? Is it any wonder that people go crazy right and left? Life leads to death. That's it." - Ancient Hebrew Philosopher (The Message)
American culture demands reasons, explanations, or motives for suffering. If someone’s pain cannot be explained, or their suffering cannot be reasoned with a purpose; then the experience of pain or suffering is perceived as unnecessary, a waste of time, or even punishment for a past mistake. Our culture does not allow for suffering simply for the sake of suffering or abide by a natural expectation that everyone goes through times of suffering.
Society is so abhorred by the idea of suffering that a tremendous amount of energy, time, and resources are invested in seeking ways to avoid pain. Our suffering must be connected to a brighter future, a happier life, or a greater sense of fulfillment. In addition, some pursue the belief that if life is lived just right, or certain principles or dogmas followed suffering can be avoided. When such right living does not serve its intended purpose, the individual becomes despondent, angry, maybe bitter, or even hostile.
As a society, we see little purpose in suffering as a necessary part of life. Each of us seeks to cheat the cycle of joy and suffering. We want to believe that we can avoid the periods of suffering while expanding the joyful, happy times. However, as the Hebrew philosopher so aptly states,
"The race is not always to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor satisfaction to the wise,
Nor riches to the smart,
Nor grace to the learned.
Sooner or later bad luck hits us all."
-- Ancient Hebrew Philosopher (The Message)
As a country, a society, a community, and as individuals our current times are a period of corporate suffering. As a nation, we face a crisis of identity and purpose; and as a society, we face a renewed struggle of equality and compassion. Many of our communities wrestle with fiscal survival amidst a failing infrastructure. Millions of individuals are experiencing tremendous anxiety concerning lack of employment, home foreclosure, loss of savings and retirement funds, broken relationships, and a sense of uncertainty about the future not known by recent generations.
There is no better time for existentialism and the message of hope that it provides. Existentialism is often perceived as a dirge, a life is hard, and then you die fatalism. However, existentialism is a message of hope. A message that says suffering is important, that in suffering we learn more about ourselves - our boundaries, our strengths, and our limitations. Existentialism reminds us that suffering does not last forever, that just as there are periods of pain there are also periods of joy and contentment. Existentialism tells us that through the process of suffering we gain a greater understanding of our purpose, we learn the ability to differentiate ourselves from others, and we gain new insight into our freedoms as well as our responsibilities.
Just as the turtle in the picture will return next year to lay her eggs, risking again the pain of loss, so existentialism invites us to engage our times of suffering. We do not choose the type of suffering we encounter, nor do we have a choice concerning the degree of suffering we undergo. Our choice is simply to involve ourselves fully in the pain, and to accept that the depth to which we are present with that pain determines the insight and wisdom we gain about our world and ourselves.
-- Steve Fehl