I had occasion recently to reflect on the nature of suffering while consoling a friend grieving the loss of his beautiful young daughter. Like gazing at “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat’s most famous painting in pointillist style, the sense that can be made of suffering requires distance, not of space, but rather of time. But more on that mystical painting later.
Suffering is disharmony between what is and what should be. The greater the disharmony, the greater the suffering. A life without suffering, though, is not unfathomable. It’s only forgotten, a biblical distinction that means the important difference between despondency—we’ve lost the directions—and despair—there are no directions.
Seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal believed this. In his masterwork Pensées, of man’s unsettled nature he observed “who indeed would think himself unhappy not to be king except one who had been dispossessed?” We have in us, as Pascal put it, an idea of happiness, but we cannot attain it. And so we suffer. Pain in the present moment spurs a look back in time, a prehistoric inquiry that promises we came from someplace better.
Where we come from assures us we’re not, to use a great Walker Percy phrase, “lost in the cosmos,” and this helps contextualize suffering. But so does where we’re going. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis, unsurprisingly, said it best: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
This particular consequence of suffering, in contrast to Pascal’s insight, is forward-looking. It makes us long for the other world Lewis mentioned, one without anguish, to which we’re drawn for the entirety of our earthly lives. Even if we can see it only intermittently and forever-veiled, we know in our bones that this world exists. At the dearest price of earthly loss, suffering augurs redemption.
Given so glorious a source and a summit—so magnificent a spiritual heritage and destiny—a present that is perpetually plagued by suffering does seem maddening. Trusting it neither always was so nor always will be so is comforting, but such trust hardly relieves the pain of something as tragic as the death of a child. But continuing the metaphor of time, maybe we have to finish life’s book, one in which we ourselves are characters, before we can grasp the fullness of its meaning.
Now, back to that lovely Georges Seurat painting.
Perhaps when time and space merge into one, we shall see all lives—those young and old, flourishing and cut short—in their native and restored glory. Perhaps it will be like stepping back from “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” to a vantage point where finally we can see ourselves as lovingly interconnected parts of a most splendid whole. Perhaps the greatest suffering in time will seem puny indeed next to the smallest joy in eternity.
I believe this is so; never more surely than on this victorious day. No earthly cross is borne in vain, for the darkness of Good Friday is no match for the radiance of Easter Sunday. I pray today that the peace of this knowledge will dwell in the badly broken heart of my dear friend, and of all who suffer in this world.