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Perhaps you have seen or read Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” – an abstract and metaphorical piece that is described as a tragicomedy. Very little happens in the two act play but it is rich with symbolism representing Beckett’s views on life, death, religion and suffering.
Beckett was from Dublin, Ireland, raised as a Catholic and was someone who witnessed the horrific results of two world wars. Beckett described seeing thousands of war veterans return to Dublin after World War One – men who were severely maimed, blinded or insane from the brutality of trench warfare. As a result, Beckett became an avowed Atheist. The problem of evil and suffering in the world, called “theodicy”, convinced him that an all-powerful and loving God cannot exist. Such a God, if he or she exists, would surely put an end to the pointlessness of evil and the distress humans experience as a result.
It is in this context that he wrote “Waiting for Godot” in 1953 – a work that many have described as one of the more important literary works of the twentieth century.
Briefly, the play revolves around two men – Estragon and Vladimir – who spend their days waiting for a friend, Godot, who they believe will alleviate their boredom and misery. They only know they are to wait by a leafless tree – and so they find one and there they stay – all while passing time re-living the facts that Estragon had been beaten the night before, that he is desperately hungry, that they have been waiting for Godot for many days, that the events of each day seem to repeat over and over, that their commitment to meet Godot may well be pointless and that they can escape their futile promise by committing suicide.
In both Acts, the two men are encountered by two other characters – Pozzo and Lucky – who walk by the tree each day. Pozzo is, at first, an arrogant, mean-spirited slave owner who is comical in his pomposity. Lucky is his hapless slave whom Pozzo intends to sell. Lucky appears in Act One as a pitiful and maligned man with a noose around his neck from which he is led by Pozzo. After carelessly consuming a meal of chicken and wine in front of the starving Estragon and Vladimir, Pozzo refuses to offer any help to them. He instead commands Lucky to teach them the meaning of life. Lucky does so with, at first, a rational but theological speech about trusting in a divine being. His discourse, however, soon becomes rambling and completely ridiculous.
Act Two begins the next morning. Estragon and Vladimir have again waited all night – even though they had intended to go home. Such is the pattern of their behavior – the hopelessness of their situation prevents them from doing anything except wait. The two men engage in absurd conversation – often trying to remember the events of the day before. They struggle to understand what is real and what is imagination. Even as they confirm that they had, indeed, waited for Godot yesterday, they remain unconvinced about what is true and if time has even passed.
Once again, they encounter Pozzo and Lucky. Only this day, it is Pozzo who is dejected and clearly suffering. He cannot remember who he is, what he is doing or where he is going. Lucky still has the noose around his neck but it is he who now leads Pozzo – a man who, despite his distress, is remarkably no longer arrogant but humbled, considerate and sometimes insightful. He utters one of the plays more famous lines: humans, he says, “give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
The play ends with Estragon contemplating what will happen the next day – predicting it will be nearly identical to all others. It is at this point that they discuss committing suicide but fail to reach a decision – putting it off until tomorrow. Once again, they do not depart, they stand by the stark tree, and simply wait – as the curtain falls.
As I reflected this past week on my own understanding of suffering and how that relates to my mom’s situation, this play and Beckett’s commentary on the nature of life, suffering, and religion came to mind. The play addresses themes of hopelessness, human misery and the existence of God. Why do we exist if our time is spent waiting to die and thus meet a supposed God? Estragon and Vladimir wait by a symbolic Cross, but they don’t understand why. Life for them revolves around waiting for a unseen friend – Godot, who is an obvious symbol for God – but who never appears. Is he a friend since he never shows up? Is he even real? What is to be understood by the stoic suffering of the two men, or the reversal in fortunes of Pozzo and Lucky? When one does well, the other suffers. Good fortune and suffering exist symbiotically, Beckett suggests. Happiness cannot exist without its alternative of suffering. The play tells us that misery offers a kind of purification, as we see in the character of Pozzo. Only when he is brought low, when he suffers, is he decent, wise and humble.
As I elaborated in my message last week about my mom and her slow decline, human suffering is inevitable. None of us will be spared from hurt or death. In relating such truth to the Resurrection story, life appears to be a long series of Good Fridays – punctuated by a few, brief Easters of hope and joy. Indeed, life in this perspective lacks any purpose and is even cruel in its random infliction of pain.
Spiritually, the problem of suffering and evil has been explored for thousands of years. I suggest suffering and death are the primary motivations for religion – how to make sense of them and find solace from them. If suffering is inevitable, how should we respond to it? As a stoic? As one who perversely seeks it as a way to perhaps find God? As someone who is angry about it and thus with life? Should one try to escape suffering through substance abuse or suicide? Is suffering an excuse to hurt others in order to mask one’s own pain?
Christianity embraces suffering as necessary. Only by suffering as a result of sin can we understand we have no hope except in God and his Savior son Jesus Christ. Only they can save us. Believers suffer now so that they can later go to heaven.
Jews and Muslims see suffering as a way to prompt humans to rely on God or Allah. Only by following his many rules can one be worthy of an eternal and happy afterlife.
Buddhists and Hindus see suffering as a pathway to greater enlightenment. By ending the cause of suffering – which they believe is due to selfish desires – does a person advance to higher and higher levels of contentment and peace.
But which path is true? Or are they all, in some way, true? Or, as many Atheists assert, is no path true? Richard Dawkins offered an Atheist’s perspective on suffering when he wrote in his book River Out of Eden, A Darwinian View of Life, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good.”
Dawkins echoes the views of Beckett. He tells us that the universe is random and amoral. Suffering is a part of existence. It lacks any purpose. It just IS. One issue with this line of thinking is that it can lead us to resignation and hopelessness – much like what Beckett portrays in “Waiting for Godot.” If we can find no greater purpose to why we or others suffer, then life itself has no meaning. Even more, if there is no justice in why people suffer, there is no reason to try and alleviate it. Much like what the character Pozzo says, Atheists seem to tell us that we are born, we live for a while with a few moments of happiness, and then we suffer and die. In the totality of the universe, humans serve no greater purpose than does an ant we haphazardly squash.
As tragic as it seems, that appears to be my mom’s lot in life right now – to simply exist until Alzheimer’s kills her. But is that really the case? Is my mom’s life now worthless and hopeless? As I said last Sunday, I refuse to accept that proposition.
I see a higher spiritual meaning behind suffering. While suffering may exist as a consequence of natural phenomenon or human propensity to act selfishly, I assert that the important thing to consider about it is how we respond to it – when we or others hurt. As I said earlier, religious responses to suffering offer a bit of wisdom. Even Beckett, in his Atheism, sees suffering as a path to wisdom and humility.
A part of my theology, which I often repeat, is that God is not an outside force that controls our destiny. Nor is there a place, beyond space and time, that we can call heaven or hell. God exists, but only in metaphysical sense – in us, in nature, in the universe of things. It’s we who have the ability and the power to affect our lives and those of others. We help to shape the world in ways that make it a form of heaven or hell.
But if our existence is by random luck, if we are simply an amalgamation of atoms and selfish genes, as Richard Dawkins says, that does not mean we, as gods of our own destiny, cannot add purpose and meaning to our existence. In other words, we are masters of our own eternal destiny – which as I said last Sunday is defined by the legacy we create of courage, endurance, and goodness toward others.
Rabbi Alan Lurie, a contemporary writer on theology and philosophy, writes that while suffering is real, we choose how it will affect us. How we choose to respond to suffering determines whether we are ennobled or debased. Do we choose the path of wisdom, strength, compassion and humility – or that of self-pity, egotism, anger, and envy?
Indeed, it is a paradoxical truth that if suffering did not exist, we would suffer even more. In this view, suffering has a strange utility. Lurie relates the story of a mediocre golfer who one day cries out to God to allow him to always hit a hole in one. A voice answers him, “Your wish is granted!” Fame and fortune soon follow for this golfer. No matter how he swings a club, he hits a hole in one. But he quickly finds this boring and shallow. And just as quickly, his fame and fortune end. People are no longer interested in someone who is perfect. The golfer then shakes his fist at the sky and angrily says, “God, why did you grant me my foolish wish?” To which a voice replies, “Who said I was God?”
The point Lurie makes with his story is that perfection is not so great and may even be evil. Mediocrity, strangely, is not such a bad thing. If we have no room to improve, what is the point of life? Where is the challenge and the adventure? In the same way, can heaven be heaven without some suffering? As Beckett suggests, without pain, can we truly understand what it means to be happy?
It might be said, as some commented to me last Sunday, that I’ve done a good job finding a silver lining to my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps that is so. But, I try to see it differently. Her disease is horrific to me only if I choose to see it that way. I certainly was blessed and enriched by my three weeks caring for her. And she, too, is finding delights in life much like a child – no longer is she constrained by adult filters of arrogance or indifference. The world is new and fresh all the time – since she often forgets what she has seen. As I said last week, this a resurrection for her – something outwardly sad but inwardly, spiritually, something beautiful.
This is the case with any suffering. We can choose whether or not it is tragic or, in some paradoxical way, good. I do not intend to say that pain is not difficult – or that people should seek it. But if we accept the fact that it is unavoidable, if we accept our lives are finite, then we have the choice, as Rabbi Lurie says, in how we respond.
Suffering offers us the choice to ennoble ourselves – to find dignity and value in what we experience, to learn from distress, to grow for the better in how we live. Far too many people, including me, cry out when they suffer, “Why me?” But a logical response to that plea is, “Why not you, or why not me?” “Who am I that is so special as not to suffer?” And ironically the question might also be, “Who am I that I cannot be blessed by suffering?”
Pain and hurt diminish us in ways that strip us of our cockiness that we are immune from hurting. Such humility can lead us to charity, empathy, kindness and service to others when we perceive their pain. But we must choose to make those our responses. We must purposefully choose not to allow suffering to cause attitudes of self-pity or bitterness. Indeed, we might even see that those who are comfortably well-off are ironically worse off. They have false comfort in health, wealth or success but they lack the spiritual wisdom and peace derived from suffering.
As we so often realize in life, it is only when we fall, it is only when we are deprived, it is only when we are at our weakest, that we appreciate the good in life – that of love, kindness, love and charity.
Once again, my intent is not to diminish the brutal hurt we see around us. But if suffering has any value and meaning, it is in how we address it and work to alleviate it in others. Evil and suffering are facts of life. But their very existence make joy and peace possible. Heaven is right here, right now, in this imperfect world. And it is we, as true gods and goddesses, who can choose to persevere with courage, love and dignity for all.
To further make my point, with much love, I wish you all much pain and distress….