Beauty and Suffering
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
These are dark times. No one wants to hear, “Cheer up! It’s not that bad!” Few things are more annoying than the relentless cheerfulness satirized in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where crucified men sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.”
Almost a million and a half people worldwide are confirmed to have been infected with the corona virus, and there are certainly many more who haven’t been tested (Johns Hopkins). Close to ninety thousand have died. In the United States, more than seventeen million people have filed for unemployment insurance (Washington Post). People are dying alone, and families can’t gather for funerals. Weddings, birthday parties, and religious observances such as Passover and Easter are cancelled. And let’s not forget the looming disasters that we used to worry about just a few weeks ago: climate change with its sea level rise, wildfires, and hurricanes; political and economic freefall in many places leading to wars and floods of refugees; the insecurity of relying on the internet for elections, financial transactions, and important records – all the things that fill the headlines when the pandemic doesn’t. Dark times indeed.
For the most part, there isn’t much we can do about these problems. However, we can do something about how we face them. I recommend deciding to see beauty in the midst of suffering.
I’m not saying that suffering is beautiful in itself, because it isn’t, or that appreciating beauty should make you think, “Gee, pretty flowers. I guess life is great after all.” Sentimental optimism, which sees only the bright side and not the dark, is just deliberate blindness. At the other extreme from the optimists are the pessimists, the people who see only the dark and never the bright. It’s also blindness to claim that one’s own misery cancels out goodness, that because it’s dark here there is no light anywhere.
The point is not to try to see less of reality, which is what both the pessimist and the optimist do. The point is to see reality as a whole, both the difficulties of one’s individual situation and the magnificence of life and goodness across time and space. The way to start is to look around and see things as they are, not just through the lens of mood or circumstance, and to be grateful for them. Even when their existence does nothing practical to alleviate our current suffering, still they exist, and they are good.
The pandemic, death, destruction, corruption, insecurity – these are all true. But this is also true. Outside my window it is windy and sunny. The ancient crab apple is in bloom. The wind is flinging its sprigs of blossoms until they flicker like flames. Newly green grass is blown into ripples across the yard. A sparrow stalls in midair and hangs briefly, fluttering until it regains control and scrambles to alight. Above it a vulture surfs the currents. Dandelions and violets, yellow and purple. Bare brown dirt, grey tree trunks. Blue sky behind our neighbor’s red barn. A glossy black dog asleep at my feet. These are good things, valuable in themselves regardless of my circumstances and feelings.
There is an objectivity, a humble self-forgetfulness, in recognizing the beauty that exists even when life is a wreck. It is not making light of suffering to say that there is still beauty on the earth; beauty and suffering can and do exist side-by-side and always have.
This week, Passover and Easter are celebrated. These two holidays recognize the beauty that coexists with misery: the difficult redemption from exile and slavery, the triumph of life over death. Neither holiday promises that suffering is over, that Jews would never again face persecution or that Christians would never die. But they do remind us of the beauty of families remembering happiness in the midst of sorrow, of hope that bitter winter will be followed by spring, and of confidence in the renewal of creation, however much we mess it up.
Read more at the Post-Doom website, which is devoted to creating meaning on the other side of global disaster.