Posts Tagged ‘problem of pain’

“There’re no atheists in foxholes,” religious people like to say. What they mean, of course, is that when you’re in trouble, the idea of a deity becomes more inviting. I’ve always thought the comment smug, to say nothing of beside the point, since belief does nothing to prove that a deity actually exists. So, while I can’t speak for atheists, I’m proud to say that I’m one agnostic who hasn’t found religion in the foxhole.

Mind you, I can see the attraction. Twenty months ago, I was abruptly widowed, and everything I expected about the rest of my life changed when I was still relatively young. Then, five months ago, just when I thought I found a group to identify with and maybe give me new direction, that was snatched from me, too. Under the circumstances, it would be reassuring to think that all the loneliness and existential angst had some purpose and that all had happened for the best.

The trouble is, I can’t reconcile these ideas with the senselessness of what I’ve lived through. If anything, my recent life seems evidence of randomness, of the stark fact that the only purpose is what I choose to adopt, and that even self-chosen purposes can be punctured by chance. To insist on an external purpose in the face of such evidence seems nothing more than wish-fulfillment.

Anyway, assuming that a deity exists, what would she/he/it/they think of my new-found belief? It wouldn’t be based on a sincere faith; it would be based on being frightened. Nor do I think much of a deity that used fear to gain followers.

The situation all comes down the familiar problem of pain. Endless pages have been written on this subject, but it amounts to one simple, unanswerable question: how can you reconcile the idea of a loving deity with all the hurt that’s in the world?

Suggesting everything is part of a larger plan doesn’t answer the question. Nor does the suggestion that, without suffering we could never appreciate happiness.

No matter what you answer, you’re still left with one of two situations, assuming that a deity exists. Either that deity has no control over how things operate, or that deity is amoral. In both cases, that deity is by definition unworthy of worship.

Instead of wrestling with such problems, it’s simpler – more logical, and more in accordance with my observations – to believe no one’s in charge. Far from encouraging me to find religion, if anything the last two years have nudged me from neutrality closer to outright atheism.

And if you suggest that the last two years were intended to teach me a lesson, all I can say is that I have more pride than to acquiesce to the machinations of a bully, no matter how powerful and no matter how badly I’ve been mugged.

You might call that perverse. Personally, I call it self-respect.

So, please, no smug talk about what happens in foxholes – especially if you’ve never been in one.

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A friend of mine insists that everything happens for a reason. If a relative dies, or he receives a disconnection notice from the power company, or he fails to make his rent on time, he consoles himself by repeating this idea over and over. But for all my familiarity with his refrain, it only occurred to me today that he might be right – although not in any way that he would suspect.

I’ve never told him, but the implied resignation in his philosophy always leaves me faintly irritated. If you’ve ever been with someone whose hearing is much better than yours, you’ll understand my irritation, because if there’s a pattern to the events around me, it appears to be beyond my perception. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand, then I wonder: what if he sees something I can’t?

Even more seriously, if you believe that everything happens for a reason, you quickly confront the idea of inevitability, or of a deity who controls events. In turn, either of these ideas quickly comes up against the so-called problem of pain – in other words, what’s the role of suffering within that all-explanatory reason? And if hurt or loss is either inescapable or ordained by a deity, then the universe is hostile, and any ruling god is, as Mark Twain suggested, “a malign thug,” worthy neither of worship nor resignation towards through the belief that everything happens for a reason.

Such possibilities seem a needless complication compared to the idea that there is no innate reason, and that much of what happens is simply the result of chance and beyond our control. My friend creates a sense of meaning by believing in hidden causation, just as I create meaning by opposing and trying to limit the painful when it randomly occurs.

So far, so existential. But I suddenly realized today that I hadn’t taken my outlook far enough. If no innate reason exists, there is no reason why you can’t settle on your own purpose for everything happening, and take comfort from that, even if that purpose is only finding satisfaction in the fact that what happens is in accord with your perception of how existence works. That may be a distant and unsatisfying outlook, but it would make my friend’s mantra truer than I imagined possible. But what purpose would reconcile me to stoicism in the face of disaster?

Immediately, I thought of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, which mentions in passing that the entire purpose of a greedy Sixteenth Century merchant’s existence was to give Shakespeare the model for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Having recently spent a couple of days with fantasist Fritz Leiber’s immediate descendants, that in turn reminded me of Leiber’s comment that seeing everything he experienced as potential story material was part of his adoption to life.

Was there any reason, I wondered, why I couldn’t assume the same perspective? If what happens is story material, then that would be a reason that I could accept for everything that happens. Some events might be horrific, but, softened by being put in a story, maybe even they might instruct, amuse, or distract both me and any audience. The idea requires no belief in destiny or a deity, and morally involves nothing worse than salvaging something from whatever happens.

The only problem is that, so far, I’m not much of a fiction writer. While I’ve sold close to twelve hundred pieces of non-fiction, I’ve only published two pieces of fiction, both so short and so slight that calling them minor is being kind. The potential is there, but time is starting to run out.

Still, there is no reason why I can’t try out the perspective. Cultivating it might even encourage me to use the material I’ve collected, to settle down and make more of an effort at fiction.

That may be expecting too much. But, effective immediately, I’m resolved to see how the perspective works out. Since I’ve been mentally circling the idea since I first thought of it this morning, it seems worth exploring. I’ve rarely had an idea that intrigued me so much.

Who knows? Perhaps in a year or two, when my friend tells me everything happens for a reason, I will nod and tell him that he doesn’t know how true his belief actually is.

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