Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. – Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
So if I attempt to avoid suffering, I will suffer even more? Or if I deal headlong with my suffering, it will hurt anyway? Even if I don’t like the choices and their results, I will necessarily accept one or the other regardless of how painful I think the outcome might be. If I simply attempt to ignore the pain, then I am, of course, avoiding the hurt and it will begin to fester and become infected. Or if I decide to take on the suffering directly, it will ache terribly anyway. The only reason that I am pushed to a conclusion is that time and soul is such that one can’t freeze the moment. It is impossible to stop in place that which demands reconciliation. A person in this life is, on one hand, destined to hurt or is, on the other hand, destined to hurt. Is this really the bottom line of what life is all about? Can there be any light at the end of the tunnel?
Merton’s statement is a paradox; a seemingly contradictory proposition that may nonetheless be true. We don’t operate well in paradoxes. One that Regina and I used to talk about – it is a simple example – was the idea behind what the airline steward would tell us to do in case of an aircraft emergency. Remember this one? “In case of an emergency,” he would explain, “always put your oxygen mask on first before you put the oxygen masks on your children.” On one level, this direction sounds decidedly selfish. After all, I’m prepared to give my life doing whatever I need to do to save my child even if I die doing it. I suppose this works if a person isn’t considering the bigger picture. On another level, however, what good will it all be to the children if I don’t survive long enough to get the masks on the kids because of my loss of oxygen? You get the idea. Again, we don’t deal well sometimes with paradoxes.
I think Merton’s proposition and conclusion is dead on. I know people who can’t and won’t face their pain. They end up not being able to shake their grief. It makes them physically, spiritually, and mentally sicker and sicker every passing day. And to Merton’s point, simply existing becomes an intolerable chore. How sad. May we all have the strength to get up and get on else Merton’s argument will take hold to very unfortunate ends.
So what is the antithesis to Merton’s thesis? Actually, Merton does address the remedy to his proposition later in his book. And it has to do with having a strong and enduring spiritual outlook and eternal viewpoint. But I’d like to address the opposite of Merton’s thesis with something that Viktor Frankl wrote in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning. Interestingly, Frankl also proposes something of a paradox for us to wrestle with. He wrote:
Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
Frankl suggests that if we make happiness our primary pursuit, we will never be happy. Again, a paradox. Instead, Frankl proposes that happiness will be the result of or, as he calls it, a by-product of pursuing a greater cause than personal happiness. He says that happiness will come unintended to one who engages in deference and service to others.
I believe Merton presents the idea that a person can’t find relief from pain through avoidance. In fact, grief and pain will increase instead of decrease when trying to avoid pain. Frankl proposes, then, that relief from pain that can result in happiness does not come from a pursuit of happiness. Instead, true happiness comes from service to others and having an humble attitude to all things greater.
Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who hurt and grieve. But the light doesn’t come through avoidance or denial. Instead, it comes from loving and serving others and honoring things that are greater than a person’s life itself – God, relationships, and purposeful causes.
The light will come. And it will bring with it relief, joy, and happiness.