One of the virtues of an Anglican based high school education; beyond the ugly kilts and ties, starting each morning with the daily office and an iron clad aversion to cabbage in any form, is a religious education that tended to the philosophically obscure. Most people covered a few bible verses and some of the more basic parts of the Catechism, I learned Anslem’s ontological proof for the existence of God and all about teleology.
Teleology for those of you who didn’t have my education (and may not twitch at the sight of cabbage) is a discussion of ends and attempts to relate function and purpose to those ends. You can trace it from Plato to Kant to Bertrand Russell’s critique, if you were so inclined. The long and short of it, at least for this post, is the notion that things have an end, and more than that, things happen in pursuit of that end. A must come before B and in some way, if C is the end, A and B contribute to C. Time is an arc and the events that happen in that arc move time along.
I’ve been thinking particularly of teleology in the last few days, mostly as I have been thinking of suffering, remembrance and anniversaries. I’ve been thinking about an iron truth in what ever way you want to define the arc of the universe – there are some things that never stop hurting.
Whatever Dan Savage might say, “it gets better” is a slogan and slogans are not necessarily truth. We might start by asking what “it” in the sentence is. Is “it” emotional pain from teasing or ridicule, or does the “it” simply refer to ability to cope? Do we ever get past the pain or do we simply, at least most of the time, incorporate the sorrow and regret into our lives in a way that is mostly weightless?
I thought of all of this in the context of a dear friend going through their own anniversary of remembrance and how it has been some time, at least an amount of time that society would expect things to be “better” and it really wasn’t better, and at least in that moment the friend was aware that it hurt as much as it did right at the start.
Which made me think of the notion of better. I used to try and substitute better for easier. It gets easier I would tell people, but that’s a lie. I’ve lived through 6 anniversaries of my son’s death and I assure you each of them has been a fresh hell. If there is any consolation to be had in any of those days, it’s that I have survived 6 of them and I expect that I will survive the 7th and all of the subsequent ones. As was pointed out to me by my friend, it’s not really like there’s any option, is there?
Easier never sat well with me either. It’s not easier. It was at least a short hand in my mind to what I’m trying to get to – that in my heart of heart’s I want the suffering to get better or easier because then I can ascribe an teleology to it. More than simply describing an arc of history, teleology appeals because it imputes meaning. If there is easier and better, there is some way of getting over suffering. More than that, if we can be said to “get over” suffering, it’s not a far leap to saying that suffering has some meaning. Suffering does something other than just wear us down.
That’s what we really want when we say better or easier. At least, it’s what I really want out of it. I really want to know that I am learning something in my suffering. I cannot and will not go so far as to say that suffering happens to teach us anything, but I don’t want it to be a complete waste. I want something out of this. I want to know that while I carried my son in my body and held him in my arms, I loved him. I want to know that after he left, the longing for him that is as much as part of me as my breath and the hurt that settled into me as deep as the marrow in my bones has some point. Some goodness and mercy came out of it. It wasn’t just a pointless, exhausting waste of pain I will always carry with me.
At the end of a long day while I carried my friend and his loss in my thoughts and my heart, and I hurt for him as I witnessed his pain, I realized this: there is no easier or better. It’s just hard. The kindest thing we can do is give space for that truth. It hurts now. It will always hurt. We can try and reason it away with teleology, but the hurt comes because we loved someone.
Easier or better are as useless and unpalatable as reasons as the cabbage at boarding school ever was.