The folly of ascribing meaning to suffering

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. I had been led to believe this god watched over me, knew my thoughts, and sensed my pain. He was a perfect and loving being, and I knew 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 I was being targeted by evil forces intent on extracting from me some expression of disloyalty or anger toward god. They were tormenting me like they tormented Job. The “meaning” of my suffering became quite grand: 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 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. Despite the occasional minor breakthrough, I was still the unwitting product of a program of systematic psychological manipulation designed to control my every thought, word, and deed. Being a sensitive and intelligent child, I was especially susceptible to the kind of manipulation that dictates what is “good” (godliness, selflessness, obedience, etc.) and encourages reckless and unchecked theologizing that will never be identified as self-neglect so long as it sufficiently props up the “good” and flatters the person of god.

Suffering is meaningless. It just happens. We can choose to find meaning in it, but it has no inherent meaning. The realization is liberating! 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 in my experience, depressive) thinking.


  1. hiramcrespo

    I read an article by Jungian psychoanalyst some years back that basically explained that humans are able to suffer through almost anything as long as they attach meaning to it. Meaningless suffering is more painful that suffering for a reason. For instance, this year I’m taking many classes and working, it’s a huge sacrifice and I’m exhausted but I know that I’ll graduate in the summer and that’s my reason for all this.

    I think the article was entitled ‘The Archetype of the Victim’, and explained that the origins of the word sacrifice means ‘to make sacred’, and that anyone who ever feels victimized or is suffering, when he or she consecrates his suffering to a higher ideal (be it a God, an ideal, a principle, whatever), then the sacrifice and the suffering becomes sacred and bearable. It’s for a reason.

    It reminded me of many of the ideas of Christianity, but the idea of the scapegoat has Pagan origins, it’s not just a Christian one. And so I think this says a lot about how humans operate psychologically: notice that religions tend to grab people when they’re at their most vulnerable: either addicted, or in jail, or facing their own death or the death of a loved one, or some other uncertainty. Misery and religion oftentimes tend to go hand in hand.

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