Aaron R. returns to ponder the meaning of suffering.
Trying to think through the problem of suffering has been something which has occupied me for around a year now and I don’t have a lot to show for it. However, the work of Emmanuel Levinas will continue to be a source of renewal for me in the future when I inevitably confront this issue. In this post I want to draw out Levinas’ major insight into suffering which is that it is meaningless when we suffer but that suffering of another should bring a change in how we respond them and their needs.
I am drawing my comments almost solely from Levinas’ essay ‘Useless Suffering’ contained in the book Entre Nous. Levinas defines suffering, as ‘the denial, the refusal of meaning’ and is therefore by definition meaningless and/or useless. For Levinas, suffering is in part a passivity, because it involves (to use LDS language) being acted upon.
Levinas writes that pure suffering provides ‘no way out’ and yet ‘a beyond appears in the form of the inter-human’. Thus it is in the suffering of the other that we begin to sense our ‘inescapable obligation’ to lift them. King Benjamin teaches that Christ bled from every pore because of his ‘great anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people’ (see Msh 3:7). One reading of this passage might suggests that Christ’s suffering was because of his ‘mourning with those that mourn’ as much as an actual suffering for our sins. In addition, Elder Maxwell has taught that Christ’s love/empathy was perfected through this experience. This indicates to me that Levinas has managed to capture one way that suffering becomes meaningful, and this is through the expansion of our capacity to love and empathise with each other.
For Levinas then, suffering is meaningful if it becomes ‘a suffering for the suffering… of someone else’. Further it is this consciousness that ‘brings us closer to God’. This method of atonement is more difficult but it is also, according to Levinas, more spiritual because it requires of us a faith (without theodicy) that drives us toward the realisation of our responsibility toward the Other. This responsibility has been aptly captured by Elie Wiesel in his speech, ‘The Perils of Indifference’, in which he said ‘to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human-being inhuman’ and thus other people become an object or an IT, rather than a Thou. We see then this suffering Other face-to-face or I toThou.
This I-Thou relationship becomes possible because we are able to strip away all other subjectivities and through suffering reveal to ourselves a foundational identity (an essence, an intelligence). Moreover, it helps us to see this same essence in the Other. Perhaps it is for this reason that suffering has the power to propel us to the intimate embrace of God and others because we become stripped of pride, envy and conceit in the depth of our suffering. We become ‘us’ in the presence of that other eternal being, whom I call God.
Without explicitly expressing this connection, Ostler provides a uniquely Mormon view of what I take be Levinas’ argument regarding suffering. Ostler believes that the interpersonal dimension of suffering is central to our ethical responsibility. He extends this into the pre-mortal life and agues that these relationships open ‘the possibility that some persons face challenges to give us an opportunity to learn to express our love for them through service and healing prayer’. Such suffering in others was voluntarily chosen, and therefore is not unjust.
Whether we accept Ostler’s theological foundations or not; the concept of a pre-mortal life does provide a unique lens through which to think about Levinas’ ideas. Despite Ostler’s insistence that if we choose to suffer (even the most ugly and vile experiences) then this is not unjust I feel decidedly uncomfortable with another person suffering for me so that I can learn to love more deeply. This is surprising because it is this same dynamic that I accept whole-heartedly as the foundation of my faith. Perhaps then, being a ‘saviour on Mount Zion’ is not solely linked to our temple or missionary efforts but also refers to a pre-mortal willingness to suffer that another might be saved. Perhaps we have all come here to learn the work of redemption by redeeming and being redeemed through suffering.
Yet, in the midst of all this fuzzy speculation I feel confident that Levinas is right. There is an ethical responsibility to turn toward those others in our life and to willingly see them face-to-face, I to Thou. Then I believe we will be able to fulfill our baptismal covenant to ‘mourn with those that mourn and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort’.