When I was six or seven years old, there was a period of a few weeks during which an intense pain in my left hip often kept me awake at night. Because the pain seemed to come out of nowhere, and because my fundamentalist Christian upbringing caused me to frame everything in religious terms, it occurred to me that my suffering was part of a supernatural test authorized by god. If the god I’d been told about actually existed, (a god who watched over me, who knew my thoughts, and sensed my pain) and if this god was as good and loving as I’d been told, he would not allow me to hurt for no reason. When he was silent in response to my asking what that reason was, I assumed he wanted me to figure it out on my own.
The only conceptual materials I had at my disposal for working through this problem were the bible stories I’d been told. I knew I was not being punished, because I was a very good and obedient child. So I imagined evil forces intent on extracting from me some expression of disloyalty or anger toward god were tormenting me like they tormented Job. The “meaning” of my suffering became quite grand: it meant there was a cosmic battle over my eternal soul, with transcendent good on one side and abject evil on the other. Having arrived at this conclusion, I dug in and refused to budge. I resolved not to become mad at god. No matter how much it hurt, I would not blame him or question his goodness. Every demon in hell could come torture me, but I would not break. I lied there for hours some nights, suffering and gritting my teeth, proud of myself for never giving in.
Then one night I discovered if I just positioned my body a certain way, I could make the pain go away. It was only a pinched nerve or blood vessel that was making me suffer, not some supernatural agent. The profound celestial drama was nothing but a fantasy in my head. All that was necessary to end the ordeal was a simple, pragmatic, real-world solution. No amount of emotion or imagination could ever have accomplished what a small physical adjustment had.
I wish I could say the experience disabused me of my religious notions, or that it would not take many more such experiences for me to notice a pattern, but I can’t. The same kind of thinking that had needlessly compounded my suffering those nights in bed–when the act of generating meaning supplanted any informed search for solutions–persisted within my mind for decades because I was still subject to the same systematic program of psychological manipulation most people born into religious cultures endure their entire lives. Being a sensitive and intelligent child, I was especially susceptible to this form of manipulation, which dictates the “good” (godliness, selflessness, obedience, etc.) and encourages reckless and unchecked theologizing that will never be identified as neglect so long as it sufficiently props up the “good” and flatters the person of god.
Suffering is meaningless. It just happens. The realization is liberating! There is no need to agonize over it. As Kaoru Negisa said in the blog post that inspired me to write this one, the “meaning” of suffering is to fix it. “Thinking your way out” is unlikely to work unless you have the right conceptual tools–tools which when used generally lead to some specific action or change of behavior, not just more thinking. Only by using evidence-based methods are you likely to solve problems involving suffering. And solving such problems means eliminating the suffering, not attempting to transmute it by shifting its context into some fairytale version of reality–least of all one that glorifies and celebrates suffering! Just because it is a human tendency to think suffering “must” have a meaning doesn’t mean it does. Just because it can feel like the discovery of that meaning “must” be the best way of addressing suffering doesn’t mean it is. These are just a few of the traps of religious (and depressive) thinking.