The atheist letters: A death that led to life (epilogue)

by Don Hartness

Suffering, as it is for so many others, was the dynamite to my belief.

Belief is an anchor in the sea of life. Take it away, and you are adrift, at least until you find a new anchor. My whole life was ahead of me, and I needed something to live for. When I focus my sights on something, I pursue it with a voracious vigor unknown to most. Books? More like libraries. Philosophy? Like I was starving. Drugs? Give me that higher consciousness baby. The common denominator? It all amounted to nothing.

A few years later, in a hotel room high over Los Angeles, I got an answer that rerouted my life. As with so many similar questions in life, the answer didn’t come from searching. It was found during a business trip, in a random book on a co-workers table. I don’t remember the book and I don’t remember the author: I only remember the concept.

What is the point of suffering? To achieve a greater good.

We are biologically conditioned to avoid pain at all costs: a good thing.  Hence, based on this mechanism, we are also conditioned to see suffering as a moral evil. Immorality is often labeled based on the suffering involved, either for the individual, others, or society. This is also why suffering is used as an argument against theism. After all, it’s difficult to believe in a benevolent and loving God when suffering exists.

Any biological mechanism, when allowed to exclusively rule over a person’s reasoning faculties, not only makes that person less than human, but it also distorts that person’s ability to perceive the greater good that all of humanity should strive for. One of those greater goods is the very capacity to willingly suffer for a greater good. An athlete suffers to win a championship, or to stand on a podium with a medal testifying to their achievement. A student suffers to earn a degree and further the cause of humankind. A parent suffers to give his or her children a better chance at achieving greatness. And so on.

To use suffering as an argument against theism is to presuppose that all suffering has no redemptive value, but this is not necessarily the case. Many religions and philosophies have recognized that pain has value. Humans have a tendency to grow, both individually and as a group, only under duress. The more extreme the suffering, the better. Although some fold under pressure, others do not, and it is this pressure that has caused the greatest advancement in the history of the species. Paradoxically absurd, and yet true.

Why? That’s the wrong question. “Why” assumes there is an alternative path for introducing change and growth. Perhaps there is, but we will never be able to answer that question definitively. To answer that question is to understand the reasons behind why the universe operates the way it does and, whether you believe there is a reason or not, the answer is ultimately unknowable. No, the right questions are those concerned with enduring suffering, learning from it, and using that information for the empathetic benefit of others.

Although it’s hard to wrap the mind around this concept, everyday examples make it quite clear, in a straightforward and simple way. Going back to the opening of this series, if I had not suffered…

  • I would have stayed in a comfortable, but ineffectual life, alive on the outside, dead on the inside.
  • I would not have opened my eyes to all the ongoing suffering in the greatest country on earth.
  • I would not have understood that poverty is not a disease, nor are the poor lepers.
  • I would not have gained wisdom about human behavior, along with the discernment born from suffering at the hands of evil people.

If I had not endured suffering at the hands of others…

  • A woman would have never come face to face with who she was. After all, it’s hard to play victim when you are the abuser.
  • The friend that left me for dead may still be torturing those that benefited his leaving (I wonder to this day how much his poor mother suffered from his evil).

And the woman I lost? She came to believe. You may think this terrible (“lost another one…”), but she would simply point at her healed wounds and scars as an answer to your skepticism. It’s questionable whether this would have happened unless I left.

Why did my grandfather suffer? Because he chose too. My grandfather’s word was his bond. “Till death do us part” was not a metaphor. His word was more important than the pain it might cause him: another way we are different from animals. Those observing his pain were reminded of these values.

As for me? I realized my prayer would have violated my grandfather’s choice to suffer for a greater good. In other words, my prayer was really selfish in nature because I didn’t want to watch him suffer, even though it was for a greater cause. In addition, besides having a positive effect on the lives of others, it also had a positive effect on me: it caused me to walk away from my false assumptions, and begin to understand this thing called life in earnest.

It was the death that led to life.