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Pain Is Not Metaphysically Basic

April 18, 2019


I write these words on Holy Thursday, as the Christian world enters into the holiest and most spiritually intense time of the year. The long season of Lent has prepared us to delve once more into the mystery of the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus. As I have been contemplating the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, my mind has turned, again and again, to the brute fact of pain. Perhaps this was conditioned by a recent conversation I had with Jordan Peterson, who commented that pain is somehow metaphysically basic. What he meant was that even the most skeptical philosopher would have to admit the existence of pain and would have to deal with it. Try as we might to flee from the world of matter, our bodies and our minds simply will not permit us to set aside the fact and the problem of suffering.

Everyone suffers and at a variety of levels. Babies suffer from hunger and thirst, and their piercing cries remind us of it. We all experience cuts, blisters, bruises, broken bones, infections, rashes, and bleeding. If we live long enough, we develop cancers; our arteries clog up and we suffer heart attacks and strokes. Many of us have spent substantial time in hospitals, where we languished in bed, unable to function. Innumerable people live their lives now in chronic pain, with no real hope of a cure. And as I compose these words, thousands of people around the world are dying, gasping for their last breaths.

But pain is by no means restricted to the physical dimension. In many ways, psychological suffering is more acute, more terrible, than bodily pain. Even little children experience isolation and the fear of abandonment. From the time we are small, we know what it is like to feel rejection and humiliation. A tremendous psychological suffering arises from loneliness, and I have experienced this a number of times in my life, particularly when I started at a new school in a city I did not know. Commencing one’s day and having no realistic prospect of human connection is just hellish. And practically everyone has had the dreadful experience of losing a loved one. When the realization sinks in that this person, who is so important to you, has simply disappeared from this world, you enter a realm of darkness unlike any other. And who can forget the dreadful texture of the feeling of being betrayed? When someone that you were convinced was a friend, utterly on your side, turns on you, you feel as though the foundation of your life has given way.

But we haven’t looked all the way to the bottom of the well of suffering, for there is also what I might call existential pain. This is the suffering that arises from the loss of meaning and purpose. Someone might be physically fine and even psychologically balanced but might at the same time be laboring under the weight of despair. Jean-Paul Sartre’s adage “la vie est absurd” (life is absurd) or Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead” expresses this state of mind. Having surveyed these various levels of pain, we sense the deep truth in the Buddhist conviction that “all life is suffering.”

Now I want to take one more important step. There is a very tight connection between pain and sin. Most of the harm that we intentionally do to other people is prompted by suffering. In order to avoid it, avenge it, or preempt it, we will inflict it upon others. And this is the leitmotif of much of the dark and roiled story of humankind. To bring it down to earth, just consider how you behave toward others when you are in great pain.

My gentle reader is probably wondering by now why I have been dwelling so insistently on these dark truths. The reason is simple. During the holiest time of the year, the Church places before us an image of a man experiencing practically every kind of pain. The Roman cross was perhaps the most wickedly clever instrument of torture ever devised. The person whose infinitely bad fortune it was to hang from it died very slowly of asphyxiation and exsanguination, even as he writhed in literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) pain. That’s how Jesus died: at the limit of physical suffering, covered in bruises and lacerations. But more than this, he died in equally excruciating psychological distress. His closest friends had abandoned, betrayed, or denied him; passersby were laughing at him and spitting on him; the authorities, both religious and political, were mocking and taunting him. And dare I say, he was also in the grip of something like existential suffering. The awful cry, “God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” could only have come from a sense of distance from the source of meaning.

However, the one who hung upon that terrible cross was not just a man; he was God as well. And this truth is the hinge upon which the Paschal Mystery turns. God has taken upon himself all of the pain that bedevils the human condition: physical, psychological, and spiritual. God goes into the darkest places that we inhabit. God experiences the brute metaphysical fact of suffering in all of its dimensions. And this means that pain does not have the final word! This means that pain has been enveloped in the divine mercy. And this implies, finally, that sin has been dealt with. Once we understand that God’s love is more powerful than suffering, we have lost, at least in principle, the motivation to sin.

These wonderful Easter days teach us that pain, in point of fact, is not metaphysically basic. The divine mercy is metaphysically basic. And in that is our salvation.