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  • damariszehner

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.

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Jeanne Melchior

An old sundial motif reads: "light and shadow by turns, but always love." I've always liked this image, for indeed, life is a series of changes, from night to day, season to season. The Easter season has always been one of my favorites, as my old fashioned Catholic upbringing rooted me in the understanding that just as the natural world around us, we we are both light and dark, and comprised of many seasons in an ever changing spiral dance. Over my life time, I'm increasingly finding the creator in all things of this world, both the light and the dark, and I have come to understand (as much as possible) what a seed must feel like in the depth…



Thank you, jkbrundage. I love the Leonard Cohen quote especially. In the 50 years that I've been aware of his music, I appreciate his wisdom more and more.



I read this post with deep appreciation for the reminder that natural beauty lies all around us ... it is the true eternal. I have sent the link to this post to my college roommate, living alone atop a mountain in North Carolina, and to friends in Banff (Alberta, Canada) who are Sheltering-In-Place in a tiny house, taking special care because the wife finished chemo for cancer barely a year ago. All expressed deep appreciation for the reminder of the 'both/and' in our lives. One sent me these quotes, which add richness to Beauty and Suffering.

"Elizabeth Renzetti, in a Globe and Mail column, said 'What everyone does feel, it seems to me, is raw.  Raw and human and fallible,…



awilliam, that would be a good thing to have a word for. let me know if you remember it.

And Pastor Jim, amen. Have a blessed Easter.



I appreciated your point out that Passover and Holy Week are falling at the same time, and the connection between the events; mainly that reality consists of both tragedy and victory, life and death. And at no other time in recent history has this been important to under-stand. The Judeo-Christian faith (and presumably Islamic, also) is grounded in a realistic approach to a lifestyle calling us to justice and peace, simply because the existence of either is, at best, fragile in this world. We are in between Good Friday and the Resurrection, looking forward to a new creation and preparing for that in this reality.

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