I’ve been asked the “why is there suffering” question from more than one agnostic/atheist in my life. Most, for some reason only attributable to childhood brain damage, actually expect me to respond with a Bible quote or some nonsense about “God’s plan.” Why they expect a traditionally Christian reply from a Wiccan is a matter for their therapist, not me.
I actually got this question from someone who didn’t expect such a response last week – Mike. Our city just got hit by a tornado, and it’s the second time tornadoes have torn up a portion of Minneapolis in the last three years. Both areas are known for troubles stemming from population density and a bad economy, and it means that people who had little lost even that. Only one person died, but the losses that people have to live and experience here (and yes, in Missouri where it’s far, far worse) are impossible to ignore.
If there was a single god, say Zeus, running around raising tornadoes, Mike couldn’t help but think the guy was a jerk – and had much to explain about torturing people with circumstance worldwide.
I also posed the question on my Facebook public page – and I got a reminder from a friend who is more “traditionally” Wiccan than I am (for lack of a better term) that a common ritual statement is “Are you willing to suffer to learn?” It’s a good question, and had extra meaning in college for me when frequent migraines accompanied the burning of new neural pathways that actually made my brain physically different from that of those who did not opt into either formal or self education. I literally suffered to learn. I’ve also suffered, and learned not to stick my finger in a light socket, not to eat things I’m allergic to, and that virtue is more often punished than it is rewarded. I learned better because of painful experience – but then, once the lesson was learned, the suffering stopped. Long-term suffering is more complex, and doesn’t really seem to impart lessons so much as it confirms and reinforces survival behaviors that are not necessarily good for the planet or other people that share a community with those who suffer.You can’t learn much if a tornado blew up out of nowhere and killed you. Learning’s over, and the suffering your family endures as they deal with disordered affairs, the serious financial burden of a funeral and the likely ensuing battle with any insurance companies, former employers or debtors may only offer a lesson in why you’re never too young to have a will and a funeral plan. And you’re dead, your family is grieving and thus not in a learning state – so that lesson is in the wind. Also, saying things about “karmic lessons” in the face of tragedy is just as obnoxious as the lady at Walgreen’s who told me thousands dying in the Iraq war is “God’s plan.” That doesn’t make it OK. My feelings of “this sucks!” aren’t going to change, and neither are yours.
When I’ve meditated on this, the answer I’ve gotten from within is this: WE ARE NOT SPECIAL. Suffering happens because human beings are not special to this world. We are part of nature, and no matter what we build or how we build it, nature is the force that dominates the planet, and nature can take the planet back anytime it wants. “Acts of God” are from forces of nature – tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, shifts in the earth’s movement – things that for the most part, no or few human beings can trigger. I have, to simplify my explanation of my beliefs in the past, suggested that in Wiccan tradition there is no separation between God and Nature, and that God/ess is the first pseudo-polytheistic step to conceptions we can deal with, to make us feel warm and friendly and cared for. I may privately see Nature and various deities and ancestors as separate from each other; it’s all a matter of how my experiences throughout life will add up. This isn’t to say God(s) do or don’t love us – we are loved the same as all the other life. When storms rip us apart, they also rip apart wildlife, fell trees, squash squirrels and pull birds out of the sky. While animals may have early warning systems for earthquakes and weather disruptions, not all can or do escape.
For the sake of this discussion, I am leaving out the evil that human beings do to each other. Human motivated evil is real, does cause suffering, can be fixed, and I am disinclined to hold my conception of God(s) responsible for an individual choosing to be cruel, deceitful, misogynistic and violent. Either we have free will or we’re a bunch of monkeys in outfits; the truth lies somewhere in between and then it comes back to the circular “why” of free will. No matter how drunk you are, no matter how much you hurt, the gift of being human is that you always have a choice. I have experiences that give me reason to believe you even have choices after you’re dead. I’m speaking of suffering when choice isn’t involved.
There is one inevitability that affects every living thing: death. As the song lyric goes, “Everyone you know someday will die.” Most will suffer on their way to death; the ones that get to go peacefully in their sleep are rare. Also, we don’t know how peaceful that sleep really was.
I don’t know why this is. Maybe the suffering of separation from the body has a transformative effect on the spirit. Maybe we experience fear of death as physical pain towards the end. But nothing living escapes death, and all things living in some way feed on life, or in the case of plants, feed on life after it’s broken down into the inanimate again. It seems that suffering and pain remind us that we are part of that whole, that there are no exemptions, that no matter how famous, how poor, how wealthy, or ugly or beautiful you are to other humans, in the eyes of the divine, from the perspective of nature, we are not special. Suffering takes many, many forms, some we can relate to and some we can’t.
I don’t think suffering itself necessarily teaches anything although it can, depending on what happens.
I don’t think I’ve answered why there is suffering. I don’t think there’s an answer to it beyond “it’s a price of living.” That some of us can escape even discomfort is a result of human actions, not divine ones.
Perhaps there is suffering because the Divine force is a generalist, and not the micro-manager popularly conceived of.