“If thou hadst known how to suffer…”
Pictures: Pexels. Photomontage: Chalice Publishing
A so far unpublished text from the study papers archive of Reshad Feild’s “Living School” from the 1970s
he oldest problem on earth? Perhaps today what is new about suffering is its immensity and our increasingly prompt awareness of sufferings of all kinds all over the globe, few of which would appear to serve any conceivable good: starvation, loneliness, illness, disability, child abuse – indisputable suffering which is intensified for spectators and frequently for the sufferer too by the sharp sense it may generate of uselessness, the cruelty of waste. You may hear people talking about it saying their own responses are becoming blunted – a form of self-defence – but still money and effort pour in for any likely cause; the need to attempt to alleviate the sufferings of others, although not always felt by those in whom it might do most good, is mercifully still widespread.
“If thou hadst known how to suffer, thou wouldst have been able not to suffer. Learn thou to suffer, and thou shalt be able not to suffer.”
First to approach this vast topic, as we feel it, more personally. Where do we take refuge from awareness of suffering? In action, in blame, in despair, in faith, in unbelief, in acceptance, in revolt, in variously shifting moods? The many responses around the globe and through the centuries are at least in part available for us to draw on now. Very old, and very many, are the ways in which men have sought to find significance in what proved to be beyond their power to change, and use it perhaps even, to change themselves.
For the last two thousand years the Western approach has been nominally Christian. Consider some strange words attributed to Christ in the apocryphal New Testament Acts of John:
If thou hadst known how to suffer, thou wouldst have been able not to suffer. Learn thou to suffer, and thou shalt be able not to suffer.
There are ways by which one may come to terms with one’s unavoidable suffering; and moreover avoid any suffering that is superfluous.
Many people have thought it strange that in a world of suffering and pain the teaching of Gurdjieff [/] and of his principal exponents Ouspensky [/] and Nicoll [/] should concentrate first on unnecessary or imaginary suffering. Nevertheless unnecessary suffering probably produces more disease, psychological malfunctioning and waste of valuable human resources than do all the different forms of necessary or unavoidable suffering put together. What then is unnecessary suffering? Anxiety, pique, annoyance, envy, self-pity, jealousy, melancholy, certain forms of boredom, imagining what might befall, feeling undervalued, feeling more deprived than is justified, nursing grievances, taking affront, feeling insulted – this list could go on and on.
“My life”, an old man said, “has been one long series of catastrophes – most of which never happened.” A life wasted in frittering away vital energy on nullities? No, because he had come through eventually to a degree of self-knowledge and moved much nearer to reality.
To eliminate unnecessary suffering, especially in those temperamentally inclined to it, may be the work of a lifetime, or it may happen much sooner. To realise, fully to realise, that if my daughter is out late, it may help if one prays (if one can bring oneself to make that effort, to pray quietly), but that to imagine her being mugged or raped most certainly will not help – quite the reverse: to see this is to be on the way to ceasing to suffer on the occasion when she is late home. If I am without a motor car, it will not help my need for one, if I envy and resent the next door’s Daimler. In both these cases I suffer tor nothing. If my daughter has indeed been raped or mugged, she will not be helped by finding me in a state approaching hysterics when at last she gets home. In that case, my premature anxiety will have robbed her of my sensible help in her time of need, which may provide fuel for self-reproaches later. Like the list above, the consequences could go on and on.
If one is so attached to a certain kind of imaginary suffering – apprehension, say – that it cannot be given up, one technique is to visualise the worst that could possibly happen and face up to it. At least one is then spared the loss of vital force involved in identifying with all the slightly less nasty possibilities. This technique will not suit those with fertile imaginations who can ‘dream up’ endlessly without being able to choose between the results!
The form of self-pity that complains about the adversity of fate is really blaming God.
The form of self-pity that complains about the adversity of fate is really blaming God. If we believe in the creator, how can we say that we know better what our fate should be? If we do not believe, why waste ourselves complaining? There is little to be gained from pitting one’s reasoning against a deep emotional response – “Can’t help it” – but there is a way out; it involves learning to see things differently, a reversal of attitude whereby footholds may appear in the obstacle, or happiness be found as a by-product, which it truly is.
But tor the many trivial irritations in our life it may be enough to say: “Do I really need to allow myself to get trapped in this petty feeling?”
If you have not already done so, try working first against the little things. The effort may need making sixty times in a minute, but when you once taste one second’s freedom, the effort will become less: the freedom is there, with every effort your will and your wish will grow; you will be eventually almost free. Not everyone can be completely freed in this life.
If the superfluous sufferings can be set into perspective, then and then only is it useful to look at the forms of useful, and unavoidable, suffering, about which J.G. Bennett has taught so clearly.
Involuntary and Useful Sufferings
First of all there is the voluntary suffering that most of us don’t consider as such at all: that is, the informed efforts we make to achieve an aim. The deprivation of the slimmer seeking to improve health and / or physique; the punishing training of the athletes; the restriction of recreation and pleasure involved in preparation for competitive examinations – in all these cases the result, if achieved, is the reward.
Then there is the indisputable suffering that comes to us without being sought: pain, illness and accident, hardship, stress, bereavement, disgrace, failure, rejection… All such suffering can bring spiritual and psychological rewards. Most of us know people who evoke our admiration, respect or love because of what they have become through their endurance; people who become all the better for their affliction: more mature, more compassionate, more cheerful even. Some, though not all, of such truly blessed souls are able to accept their suffering as, or as if it where, part of Divine purpose, and offering it up in this way, become transformed. But such a result is by no means automatic. Suffering that is not accepted may become a debilitating experience for all around.
It is a complex subject, the potential of involuntary suffering, and to write of it requires a balancing act in minds of writer and reader alike. It is sometimes said that only in failure is there hope because the man who is successful is tempted to forget the real purpose of his life. Maybe the successful man would disagree over what his real purpose is; but many have found only meaninglessness beyond success. There is in us a certain diabolic element – the denying force, the part of us which is unredeemed, which can be useful in its place – which can only be weakened and made subordinate through suffering, if freely accepted. If the circumstances of life are too uniformly favourable or too uniformly hard, it takes effort not to sink further into the grasp of this ‘dark ruler’. This is the force in us which denies what is higher than ourselves and which feels itself to be master, that it alone matters – our egoism. The denying force in us must be passive and not active when it comes to the things that really matter.
This is too vast a field for brief survey: all psychology and the great religions are individually needed here! For now, let one sentence of the poet Keats rest in the mind:
Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?
To give up unnecessary suffering is a form of real suffering and one which brings many rewards.
There is nothing involuntary about trying to relinquish one’s superfluous suffering; one has to be very deliberate indeed! No one clings to involuntary suffering: you might almost recognise it from the relief with which you see it disappear if it is lifted from you. That is an over-simplification, of course, but strange as it may seem, to give up unnecessary suffering is a form of real suffering and one which brings many rewards. People may get so attached to their pet form of suffering, they would do anything rather than let it go. You only have to listen – how lovingly and appraisingly they reconstruct each incident of it afterwards in talk! That word “pet” is a reminder – self-pity in particular is frequently projected unto animals and cherished so. Useless imaginings and anxieties about others are regarded as a form of virtue. Irritability and anger are confused with righteous indignation. Envy is almost socially acceptable nowadays, at any rate on the left, and where would politics and marketing techniques be without it?
To clear away such undergrowth in oneself makes room for the most positively useful suffering of all, what Gurdjieff described as the way for his followers: “conscious labour and intentional suffering”.
It is a cosmic law that if one undertakes to do something that is necessary for the benefit of others one will not only have to make the efforts involved in doing it, but also one will have to pay for the privilege by taking whatever consequences arise. This is “intentional suffering” – a telescoped term. One does not ‘intend’ that there should be undesirable consequences but is ready to suffer them if there are; and for any objective good there will be. This ‘double payment’ goes against our usual notions of effort and just reward, but the reward for the double payment may be something quite different altogether.
On this rare scale, Saint Paul’s mission to the Gentiles provides a clear example. He made phenomenal efforts, and faced endless incidental difficulties in order to found, maintain and guide new Christian churches where they could have most seminal effect; his health and the hazards of travelling then, and the responsibility to protect his converts from schism and heresies and sin – all had to be coped with to fulfil his aim. Over and above this where the extra consequences everywhere of his success: rational and irrational dire persecution. It seems only fair that he was allowed so many miraculous hairbreadth escapes! “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”, was his own explanation of the secret of his endurance, his dedication being so total that considerations of liking and disliking, pain and pleasure no longer had influence with him.
Fortunately we do not all have to be apostles! Not all the attempts we make to act appropriately trail undesirable consequences in their wake either; such situations may prove comparatively rare. On the trivial scale in which most of us find our start, ludicrous little incidents are all we have to practise on, where the intended good and the responsibility are appropriately small. Perhaps a lonely man is invited round for a meal and a chat; he arrives with a streaming cold, a flat battery and an enormous untrained dog! It may be help is extended to another in one of those situations in which one “just can’t win”, when one knows one is “letting oneself in for more than was bargained for” as the saying goes, although one cannot predict the exact form of the likely repercussions: moods may turn sour, or much more may be demanded of one than was originally expected, and whether or not one can comply, a friendly relationship may be lost.
Responsibility demands that one retain the use of one’s common sense, and a sense of perspective that allows one to see the wood as well as the trees, and the wood in the trees!
In these small incidents, while we may remain totally committed to some far aim – such as to become able, maybe, to serve usefully in the Great Work – commitment to a given small aim needs to be more specific and only partly ‘open-ended’; otherwise one risks being side-tracked or getting lost in obsession with details. Responsibility demands that one retain the use of one’s common sense, and a sense of perspective that allows one to see the wood as well as the trees, and the wood in the trees!
Between such extremes lies the whole wide range in which the possible consequences of one’s actions are accepted. If affliction strikes, it is not permissible to petition God for release unless one also asks for help in bearing the affliction should its lifting be inappropriate. In Mathew 26.39 is the prayer in which Jesus expressed this perfectly: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will but as Thou wilt.”
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Finally, to return to the starting-point of this long essay and ask why “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now”; is it all a waste? – which is the feeling one has in the presence of suffering where there is neither perceptible benefit nor psychological gain, not even faith.
You may remember the childhood tale, that all lost objects go to the moon, and that heaped up there into a veritable mountain, all lost and broken and unwanted toys are safely preserved. Why was not explained; it seemed enough then that there was a place even for the lost and broken things in the cosmic pattern, that everything had its place. The inadequacies of a tale are obvious; and so is the psychological need that such a tale met. The “Peer Gynt” story had a more utilitarian approach; waste went to the button-moulder to be re-processed. But why speak of stories when there are ancient teachings, with science today indicating some growing degree of rapport?
At last, belatedly – let us hope it is not too late – we are beginning to understand that “everything existing depends on everything else”; everything on earth makes its involuntary appropriate contribution to the cosmic order.
One such is the teaching of reciprocal maintenance, with the studies of ecology and conservation providing independent illustrations of how it works, and the new physics dazzling us all with the proposition that things are not as they used to seem, not even always as they seem. At last, belatedly – let us hope it is not too late – we are beginning to understand that “everything existing depends on everything else”; everything on earth makes its involuntary appropriate contribution to the cosmic order. There are more kinds of energy than those we use for fuel or technological exploitation: the teachings of Gurdjieff state that energies are released by conception and birth, by experiencing during life and by death; and that these energies are divided and used in the maintenance of this solar system.
The energies released by suffering are such a contribution. It may be that is was not always intended to be so, and that the story of the fall of man in Genesis marks the point where man was allowed to choose between two different methods of producing his necessary contribution of fine energy. By rejecting the way of obedience, and opting for the knowledge of good and evil, he made inevitable the harder way and brought suffering and death upon the world, though as Saint Paul has it, “always there was hope, because the universe itself is to be freed.”
Whether or not things might have been different at the outset, the situation now is that all forms of life on earth are threatened as a result of the rate of growth of the world population and the inordinate use and catastrophic misuse of the earth’s resources. Another factor is a wide-spread attitude whereby many folk seek to avoid any personally unpleasant effort and accept only what is “nice ’n’ easy”. Any such unbalanced way of life distorts the capacity for normal experiencing; hence the steady and continued growth in the number of those whose lives are totally unsatisfactory and almost without meaning.
In this way, the psychic food needed for the reciprocal maintenance of all that exists ceases to be produces in sufficient quantity and an imbalance is created that has to be ‘paid for’ elsewhere. The great increase in the numbers of unfortunates subjected to intolerable suffering in recent times suggests a need for their suffering in order to provide the intensity of experiencing from which the fine emanations essential for the cosmic purpose can be distilled.
“They pay for us”, as a Roman Catholic [friend of ours] dying of cancer said of the starving hordes elsewhere in the world.
But real suffering results from deprivation of any real need, psychological as well as physical. The lonely old folk, the inadequates in society and the handicapped, all those who feel their plight but may lack faith to dedicate it by acceptance and submission to the will of God – to the extent that they cannot defend themselves from their suffering, they contribute too.
What then is wasted? Where we resort to imaginary compensations, and defend ourselves by means of wrong psychic functioning and the superfluous sufferings described above – the cosmic contribution we might make is lost and instead yet more suffering still is made inevitable. Instead of serving what is alive and higher, described in Gurdjieff’s cosmology as the sun and planets and the galaxy, these lost energies are as it where excreted and go down to the moon, which being not yet alive, represents a lower level than the biosphere. Although this may help the moon, the earth suffers a leakage of its own energies and its own development is delayed.
To have been able to contribute faith, hope, love and selfless effort, enlightened by a relative freedom from illusion, as taught by all the great religions, would have been so much better! That is, everyone on earth would have been the better for living so; alas that it was not and is not yet possible, though there is a biblical promise of something not unlike it for the future. Meanwhile we do all suffer, whether we benefit ourselves in the process or not. And willy-nilly, we contribute.
Informed cooperation starts with work on oneself.
© The Literary Estate of Reshad Feild 2020