On This Suffering: Thanks But No Thanks

Dostoyevsky, the great Russian philosopher and novelist in his novel Notes from Underground, invented a character named the Underground Man to criticize the lifestyle of the people of his epoch. He noticed one unmistakable thing for which every single one has toiled– prosperity. It is in man’s advantage to strive for prosperity. The Underground Man questions this mindset. For him, it is reason that compels people to adopt such an attitude. Reason is viewed as a miraculous pill that can cure every disease. That’s not right. Perhaps, here is the punch line, suffering offers as much benefit as prosperity. Shocked?

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By suffering, he does not merely mean, for instance, pain that an athlete gets from playing a football game; he especially means doubting the conventional wisdom handed on to us as if we must accept it without questioning. In his book called the Gay Science (gay means joyful here), Like the Underground Man, Nietzsche sees in suffering something worth desiring. It is the stimulant that inspires thinkers to think, and opens our window into the field of knowledge. It means going into the deep to find what no one before us has ever found, and finally it means disconnecting ourselves from the world in order to fashion a sharper eye to survey life. The kind of suffering that the Underground Man and Nietzsche are speaking about is not just speculatively, but practically; it is born from their own struggle with suffering. So what can be gained from the kind of suffering that the Underground Man and Nietzsche are advocating?

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They believe that it allows us to think outside the box and so become independent thinkers. During Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche’s time, reason was the clearest path to knowledge. No one dared to criticize what was found by means of pure reason and logic. Dostoyevsky borrows the Underground Man’s voice to reject this convention. For him, one must be able to question, doubt, and even reject what was found through reason. There is nothing that says that reason is infallible. It is just like the ‘Crystal Palace’; it is invented by humans out of their own stupidity. The Crystal Palace represents, among many things, the rejection of rationalism. We must stick out our tongue at it. It’s just inappropriate to accept whatever reason tells us as if we depend solely on it to acquire knowledge. It is inhuman to not even try to engage and challenge reason. There is nothing that says reason always works in our best interest; we must stop treating it as the surest way to know the truth; it must not be seen as the mean to truth; if we surrender ourselves in the hand of suffering, we will find the truth as well. Nietzsche, to bring about the significance of suffering, compares it to a traveler. Just as a resting traveler knows that the clock counting the hours will wake him up at a particular time, the suffering person knows that something will wake him up too in the decisive moment. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is like sleeping while we remain conscious of what is happening around us.

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Suffering is significant and even necessary because it leads to consciousness. It makes us live life actively. It is just impossible to remain passive when suffering is eating our bone. So it reawakens our consciousness to a magnitude that we cannot ignore. Hyper-consciousness distinguishes a great man from the ordinary man and the rest of the world. Although his acute consciousness makes him unable to act, it however makes him stand out. It allows us to immerse ourselves into the ‘sublime and the beautiful’. It allows us to see what no one else can see. Nietzsche does not see eye to eye with the Underground Man on this point about consciousness. It is not consciousness that allows us to stand out, it is instinct. “If the conserving association of the instincts were not much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have perished of its misjudgments and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity… it would have disappeared”. The latter makes us a noble man and distinguishes us from the common type.

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The unmistakable observation here is a craving for attention. In their view, humans would do anything to be noticed. It is true that they strike a cord that drives the nature of man. We all want to feed our ego. We all want to tell people that we are here and we matter, especially when we feel unneeded. That’s part of human nature and there’s no running away from that fact. However, I doubt whether a lucid, normal, rationally functioning human being would go to such length just to be noticed. We spend all our life avoiding pain; we accept it only when we know it will lead to something greater. For instance, we accept the pain of exercising, or the pain of surgery because it brings good health. We accept painful working condition because it brings financial security. It is true that suffering opens door to see life for what it is; It helps us questions, however suffering is not sought for its own sake. We make the best of it when it comes; we don’t run away from it, but we don’t yearn for it. We know sometimes it comes for our own good, but no one craves for it.

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They offer suffering as an alternative to reason. Unlike what many believed then, reason of course is not the only mean to truth. Faith leads to truth as well. We need reason in the midst of suffering in order to rise above it. Faith is necessary in order to make sense of suffering. There is something we simply cannot arrive at without the gift of faith. Suffering (when it comes) can enable us to find the meaning and purpose of life, but the meaning of life is not found without the use of reason and faith. So although they are up to something, their thoughts are really too restrictive and incomplete to rally the ordinary man to their side.

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The Most Important Thing

In a wide-reaching survey, 179 people were asked what is [the] most important thing in life? Their answers ranged from love, health, friendship, happiness, peace, helping others, freedom, women, family, money, I don’t know, respect, the environment, oxygen etc. It is indubitable that all these things are important because they contribute tremendously to our well-being. But something is lacking in this answer for it is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness (Summa Theologiae II, Q 1, art 8), according to Aquinas. The most important thing in life must include something that remains when all is taken away. It must be something sustainable. The most important thing in life must be sufficient unto itself and be beneficial to us. It must provide safety and confidence in the midst of the storms of life. Whatever it is, I believe it must be something that keeps us going against all odds. But none of the answers seems to have those rudimentary elements. So are the aforementioned elements the most important thing in life?

To be fair to the responders however, there was an answer that I found striking. Someone said the most important thing in life is to find our purpose and pursue it. Yes purpose. We are purpose-driven people. We thrive best when we know what we want out of life. We are each created with a purpose and there is no greater sweetness to life than finding that purpose. Without hesitation, purpose is one of the most important things in life. Thus, it is fitting to want to find that purpose and pursue it as if there is no tomorrow. Life truly begins when we find that purpose. Finding our purpose makes us capable of living life with passion; it gives us the desire to wake up even when we are exhausted. It creates that burning drive in our deepest self to keep going even when going is almost impossible. It gives us our raison d’etre. My goal, your goal, your children’s goal, your friends and coworkers’ goal must be to find that purpose and follow it. Without a doubt, a purpose-driven life is a gift with which we need to grace our life, but is it the most important thing in life remains a puzzle yet to be solved?

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If we believe that God exists and has power over life, death, and our destiny, if God knows every single hair in our head, and knows our future before we were in the womb, he has to be the most important thing in life. The most important thing in life has got to be holiness. Since he is the most important, we want to be like him. “Be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26). Holiness means to be intellectually, spiritually, physically, and emotionally set apart for the pursuit of excellence. Unless we actively pursue such a life, life has not really begun. Once we put on that attitude, a new vision of life is created. Family, friends, money, power… are seen for what they are. Even if they are taken away, we will still have something, should I say someone, to rely on. No matter what happens, life remains meaningful. We are able to differentiate lie from truth. No existential neurosis is possible for our eyes are fixed on the proper goal and so we can scale any wall and go through any barrier. Without God as the picture, when we come to see these things for what they are and realize that we cannot cling to them, it may be too late to reach the substantial reality.

Holiness as the most important in life bails us out of this spinning torpedo. It makes us stand out. adoration With holiness, we can endure all things because we are not rooted in the ephemeral. It allows us to see this present life as the wing that carries us to what is eternal. Our inspiration comes from the one who tells that everything works for good for those who believe. If we understand God as the most important thing in life, and choose holiness for his sake, no mountains will ever be too steep to climb. He will always be there to transform the impossible to possible. He will always be a lodestar guiding us during the dark night of the soul. We will know no abandonment because it is against his nature to do so. So no crisis will be insurmountable. Living this is the most important thing in life.

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When you finally understand that holiness is the most important thing in life and embrace it with your whole essence, then you will understand that there is more to life than this. It is a waste to be caught in this corner of yours without embracing this monumental dream that God has in store for you. Embrace holiness, then you will feel like a child feels whether earthquakes, or wars are coming. You will know what it means to experience a genuine laughter. You will know what it means to feel God’s presence guiding you as if his very hands were pointing you on and his voice was whispering in your ears. You will know why some look at the sunset or stand before a painting board and weep. There is more. You are more. Choose more.

Grandeur of Man

Both Aquinas and Augustine have a blueprint that defines man as what he is and what he should be. Working within a Platonic framework, Augustine pictures man as the most important element existing in the universe, but for him that element does not really belong to the universe. Man is of the world, but does not belong to the world. According to Anton Pegis, this description of man gives us an ideal picture of man, or how he ought to be, and needs to live in order to escape this fleeting world of matter and time so as to cling to something permanent and reach his final goal. When Aquinas read the work of Aristotle, he forges a different understanding of man. Without rejecting Augustine’s view of man, Pegis tells us that Aquinas gives us a picture of how man actually is and what he needs to do in order to reach his final goal. For him, the universe and all it contains must be used as means to man’s final destination. Aquinas is telling us that man must use the world’s wings to fly to his beatitude.

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He found in St Augustine’s work something that captures man in his apogee of life, but he was not satisfied with it in its entirety. He viewed it as a building without a foundation, or a garden without a gardener. He removes from it what made it vulnerable, and adds what its base was lacking. In this light, Pegis asserts that Aquinas provides a firmer foundation to Augustine’s work better than Augustine himself could have done.

If Augustine’s view of man is the roof of a house, Aquinas’ is the foundation upon which that house is built. If Augustine is the sower, Aquinas is the one who waters the seed to make it fertile. At Ostia, Augustine and his mother had a vision. As he describes it, he said that he had to step beyond all corporeal objects; he must ascend by internal reflections so as to access the region of being itself and so have a glimpse of heaven (Confessions book ix, 188). Aquinas, on the other hand, does maintain the view that man is born to envision the kind of eternal bliss that Augustine describes, but that’s only possible when he is in complete use of his body because he is a composite being (Summa Theologiae I, Q 75, art 4). Aquinas agrees with Augustine that contemplating God, the summun bonum, is how man finds himself. Indeed, man must understand that he is made for God, and must abide in God. Man must know that he is nothing without God (Confessions book ix, 189).

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Thus, for Augustine, to mentally abide in God, man must turn into himself and detach his mind from worldly allurements. Envisioning God is actually man’s ultimate end, however for Aquinas that is unattainable without man’s complete possession of his body and soul. Pegis asserts that what Aquinas is saying in common language is that man’s soul has a spiritual thirst for the body that only incarnation can give. As Pegis sees it, Aquinas did not reject Augustine’s view altogether, why would he?, he adds what was lacking to it— incarnate spirit. This addition becomes the pillar sustaining the house of the human person that Augustine was constructing. Man is not merely a complete being, but a complete ‘incarnate’ being.

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That vision of man, which is a right and just estimation of man, has huge implications. It is the foundation of every ethical question that has to do with the human person. It sees humans as vacillating between two worlds: the material and the spiritual, the secular and the religious. It is the reason why normal people are against the view of seeing the human person as nothing but an instrument of pleasure. That’s why the dignity of the person needs to be defended. That’s the ground for human rights and freedom. That’s the basis that prostitution, human trafficking, abortion, euthanasia… are wrong. That’s why a person needs to be committed to in marriage. That’s why humans must not be engaged in debased sexual activities because that’s below their dignity. That’s why man needs religion to help him keep his head above the water. I mean he needs religion to help maintain the right balance between the need of the body and the need of the spirit that he possesses.

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We are the only creature who asks why. Only we, when we raise our eyes up in the sky, are amazed by what we see and wonder why. We are the kings and the queens of the cosmos. “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gen. 1:26). So we are immeasurably more precious than all creation taken together. We must never be treated as if we belong to the realm of this world alone. Unfortunately, many ethicists fail to see the human person as an incarnate spirit. As a result, most of them think that every human can live as he/she sees fit without any control over his person. We are not just body, nor are we a spirit. We are both. Our duty in this life is to strive to harmonize the two. It is dangerous to adore one while neglecting the other.

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You have been warned. So exercise, read, pray, and have friends. That’s the secret of a fulfilled life.