A Meditation on Tribulation, Suffering and Affliction

Both personal experience and many of the world's philosophies indicate that times of suffering are inevitable if not essential to existence, as if pain were built into the thing like the mark of the hour on a clock.

The gears and mechanisms we cannot avoid, such as being born, for instance -- even Christ had to be born -- or the indecency of elimination, are products of necessity. Does necessity also include tribulation, trials, suffering and pain?

If tribulation is an essential aspect of existence, or even an unstable bridge from one plateau to another across which one must traverse in order to mature, or even if tribulation is a subjective interpretation of an objectively dispassionate natural environment, why are there not faculties programmed into the human animal to automatically offset its harmful effects? Or are there?

My own inclination is to try to avoid tribulation, flee or repress suffering, reorient my attention, drop off into a trance that fixes on pleasure. Or if the effect of suffering -- felt differently in the body depending on circumstance -- is completely unavoidable, I slip into the borderlands of despair. The pull of despair is beyond control or whim, and can be akin to falling into quicksand -- the more one struggles, the more deeply enmeshed one becomes, and the further in one sinks.

There are various kinds of tribulation, of course. Tribulation follows bad behaviors, but you can also be born into it. One may simply be persecuted and stigmatized for who they are, which is a rampant sort of tribulation that is, like God, everywhere present. Minorities in a racist culture, women in a misogynist culture, the children of criminals or drug addicts, people born in underclassed neighborhoods, are all examples. The environment has an immediate impact on how we are treated and perceive the world, what kind of habits or addictions we pick up, and what kinds of tribulations we endure.

Tribulation also follows bad behaviors, as mentioned above. Actions often have consequences. Drink too much, and one might suffer nausea. But very few consequences are proportionate to the initial act, or, in other words, "deserved." Some consequences are disproportional to bad behaviors that end in tribulation, depending on circumstance and the cultural climate you live in. You might be thrown in jail and exiled in United Arab Emirates for posting a photo on Facebook that in the United States would get little attention, and certainly wouldn't warrant your arrest.

Further, we get sick often through no fault of our own. Babies and the elderly alike die of cancer, and multitudes of other sicknesses that break down the body's defenses and cause tribulation, suffering, and affliction. And we suffer from the actions of others as well in wars, murders, car accidents, thefts, slander, and the list continues. To assume we deserve what we get is a huge leap when the calamity comes about randomly. The notion of karma, as it is popularly and wrongly understood (as in, you get what you deserve) is an imposition of meaning, but tempting for those who are sensitive to their own acts of wrongdoing.

Moreover, we live in an age where we are prone to use logical shortcuts instead of thinking things through. We think in sound bites and jump to conclusions without evidence, then look for and find evidence to support belief. This happens all the time on every level. One might steal a candy bar, and be considered a car thief because we assume she is essentially a thief at heart. It is also subject to the taboos and mores of the time. The blindness of justice has its dark side. Other times, of course, tribulation may come as an angel, carrying ecstatic promises, lifting one up through lack of consequence on its wings, only to fall from a greater height at some future date.

Personal Tribulation
There is personal tribulation as well, the ups and downs of private life, poor decisions, circumstance. I went through a serious tribulation in 1997 when my heart broke and fires burned in the ruins. I walked the streets of Berkeley, California without consolation. I was married, and had been married for seven months, and it was over; its foreshortening struck me senseless. It was bewildering and the pain unavoidable. The difficulties of wanting to love another person and to be loved likely rate high among the categories of common tribulation.

I bought coffee and sat outside at an outdoor cafe table when a young man approached me and asked me for change. He was homeless, apparently, wearing dirty clothes, not one of the Berkeley kids who used to wear expensive designer clothes and sit on the street begging for money. He was black, thin, acne scars on his face. I reached in my pocket to give him some change, but before I had a chance he looked at me squarely in the face. Our eyes met, and he said, 'Oh, what's wrong? What's wrong?'

I could not help myself. I told him. He sat across from me. He had a gift of empathy, and I felt some of the pain temporarily lift. 'Go talk to her,' he finally said. 'Just go talk to her.' I appreciated the sentiment, but knew that was not a viable or wise option. He left me, having forgotten about the change I was going to give him. I called him back and tried to give him my change as if in payment for his encouragement, and he would not take it. He placed his hand on my shoulder, briefly. I was flooded with warmth, with consolation, a feeling of acceptance. He said, "God bless you. God bless you, friend."

Tribulation can be lifted by a human exchange, obviously inverted here, but that would not seem to justify suffering either, would it? If pain is the only thing to bind us in the we're-all-in-this-together collective, while such a communion has value, wouldn't some nobler bond be more meaningful?

Calamity and tribulation rarely seem justified by their children, whether we consider suffering as a crucible or a proof of sentimental truisms, especially at that moment of endurance and immediacy when the heat is up to an almost unbearable degree and it feels as though all is lost. I have been stripped and all that remains is this suffering, trembling body, sinews knit loosely, my bones aching as though made from shadows that inhere leanly within my body.

Most suffering is characterized by loss -- whether in divorce or death, estrangement, loss of a home, of a job, of identity or respect, of reason or hope or meaning. It does not always strengthen its subjects. People die and go mad, or live out their lives in bitterness and pain. The truism that there is nowhere to go but up is false. One can perish and go nowhere, or move horizontally through the muck of existence.

Hell is best defined, I think, as the realization that there is no rock bottom -- and if only there were! Rather, the ground beneath my feet may easily open up and disclose more ways to fall, new paths downward into the spiral. Hell is no lake, but is the momentum of falling, an endless tumble; it is in fact a bottomless pit.

Most Huffpost readers, however, like me, are relatively privileged and likely have been prone to discover that things get better. The floor remains stable. Calamity does not necessarily follow calamity, but through some effort or maybe just good fortune, life improves. The suffering abates.

Tribulation ends. Sometimes one acclimates to it, learns that it is not impossible to get by without whatever it was that was lost and which caused the suffering in the first place. One might train oneself and become a connoisseur of loss, a practitioner of austerity, or what Kafka described as "a hunger artist."

The Hunger Artist
"The Hunger Artist" exemplifies the virtues of suffering, the embrace of austerity, the achievements of what seems to be self-inflicted tribulation, but really isn't. The protagonist fasts as a form of art, sitting in a cage, for the consumption of spectators. His valor is for the refusal of food, which he rejects for forty days though if he had his way he would fast longer, and he is annoyed by those who assume he must want to eat, or may be eating on the sly. He fasts truly and with apparent integrity, yet is often annoyed by those who do not appreciate the fact that he truly hungers, and it isn't merely performance.

Eventually, however, interest wanes and he ends up with a circus, where, ignored and allowed to fast indefinitely he dies of starvation after an admission that no one ever offered him the kinds of food he likes. He could not help but to fast. A panther takes his place in the cage, vivacious and healthy, and it is fed the food it likes. The impresario declares that order has been restored.

Critics vary widely in their reading of the story, including one who thinks it is about the medical condition of anorexia, a notion so absurd that it lingers close to being Kafkaesque. Some think it is about the starving artist. Others that is it about the value of being seen. Other suggest it is a veiled story about Kafka's own hidden homoerotic impulses and consequent interior conflicts.

Isn't it really about, however, hunger and need and loss and suffering? Hunger as both a compulsion and as a thing to be acquired, rather than fed. The need to transform suffering into performance art and remain true to an ascetic impulse, an integrity that is ultimately destructive. The loss of belief and of popularity, death and then the return of one's own libido as signified by the panther who prevails and who does not suffer.

For a season I am the artist, even one who valorizes hunger for the sake of art, who transforms my own suffering into performance (particularly through the written word), which is the root of all art and a common rationalization for tribulation and loss.

For a season I am the panther, figuratively eating meat, and filled with vitality, and the underlying principle of a meaningful existence returns, light becomes resplendent and varied and casts intricate and meaningful details into one's vision.

But whether the hunger artist or the panther, the cage remains.

Should one then desire an end to all suffering, or punt to Buddhist conceptions of the middle path, and meditate on the illusory nature that comprises the highs and lows of all experience?

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Jesus of Nazareth, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." His words of course denote initiation, not some future promise of harps and angel's wings as some are inclined to misread him, but a relation to authority beyond the mundane spectacle of one's own need.

Yet, one might also understand from this a certain promise in poverty, which is not necessarily the same thing as tribulation, although poverty like calamity suggests lack if not loss. To what degree is poverty a thing to be valued or acquired in order to possess all things (which is the real point of the blessing)?

And to what degree is poverty to be rejected, especially when it turns to sickness and death? "Blessed are you who hunger," Jesus of Nazareth also says, but not for food -- rather, for righteousness, best symbolized in Kafka by the panther, not the artist. Yet, righteousness is also signified by the word "blessed" in the Beatitude, and could be attributed to the artist, not the panther.

What's the Point?
If my own tribulation, enmeshed in an apparent paradox, suffering that is also partly my fault and partly not, somewhat performance, but also an experience, disempowers me, I am moved to locate any and all authority I may have in responsibility. The point seems to be my response, not my capacity to overthrow, evade, avoid, control, justify, rationalize or deny my own calamity. Such efforts only make things worse.

Granted, different people have varying powers of volition, but the responsibility remains a constant. The poor woman who gives a penny gives more than Bill Gates. Addictions, disorders, complexes, mental instability, and endless other factors limit the strength of one's response, but its quality is minute, like a spark, yet yields authority over the whole personality.

Certainly tribulation has a teaching effect, sometimes positive, other times negative, but its point is not to build character or make us stronger. Punishment can only distill fear, which may improve behavior while planting seeds of hatred and resentment and cynicism.

Tribulation can break down the defenses that create unreality, that suggest I am not in a cage, or that I am in control of my environment and my life. If it has any point, which usually it does not and is not expressed in any just way, even for those who find themselves suffering as a point of jurisprudence, it is probably to bring one closer to reality and a genuine human response.

What is my genuine response in the face of tribulation? It is ongoing, of course, and moment to moment -- but it seems to make central the idea that in its performance, I am the one who lacks, the one in poverty, the one who is stripped down, the one who is caged, and the one who has no control.

Given that, the only genuine response is acceptance, an acceptance that denotes the immediate experience, but not necessarily all of its ramifications, since almost all tribulation comes with injustice, even when it is the consequence of poor decisions or stupid behaviors. To that end, it seems, tribulation, while difficult and sometimes impossible to bear, is at best an opportunity to face reality, and to that end also an opportunity to be human.

Originally posted at Marginal Accretion