I'm a big fan of Terrence Malick, whose films touch on profound existential issues. In his film The Thin Red Line, a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
Malick gets at the heart of one of our greatest challenges in life. What will being good do for us? Why should be remain decent when the world takes advantage of us? Why should be stand on principle when others seem merely to calculate? These questions can be easy to answer when life is good, but what about when it turns to pain? When we are harmed intentionally, or even unintentionally, by others? Or harmed simply by natural processes in the world as though we do not matter?
At another point in the film a question is asked: “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
That's a poetic, beautiful, almost biblical way of asking the question. The psychologist Jordan Peterson reflected more concretely on the ways we can be affected, when talking about betrayal. "The people who have been really hurt, have been hurt by deceit. You get walloped by life, there's no doubt about that. However people can handle earthquakes, and cancer, and even death. But they can't handle betrayal, and they can't handle deception. They can't handle having the rug pulled out from under them by people they love and trust. That just does them in. It hurts them psycho-physiologically, it damages them. But more than that, it makes them cynical and bitter, and viscous and vengeful. And then they start to act all that out in the world. And that makes it worse."
So these are serious questions we are asking, which deeply impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.
I have been fascinated by bitterness for a long time; by how people become hard, angry, bitter, or instead remain open, even grow, through their suffering. When I was younger I saw it this way: you suffered something terrible, such as deep betrayal, and then you faced a cross-roads: the temptation to become bitter, versus the call to remain loving and to grow. I think this made me subtly judgmental toward bitter people. Now I see it differently: when the act or the pain is deep enough, we are thrown first into bitterness. "[I]t makes them cynical and bitter, and viscous and vengeful." And then we face the decision of whether to remain there, or to find our way back, toward deep contact with goodness, toward an open, loving heart. That can be a hard, long journey.
But it is one of the most important journeys in life.
Goodness will not protect you from suffering. But a commitment to it, a faith in it, can enable you to live with your suffering in ways you otherwise could not. It is an antidote to despair. And to hardness, hate, bitterness. Because when you maintain your orientation toward goodness, even in the midst of pain and the instinct to hate, you are able to centre yourself on something that goes deeper than your suffering. Socrates asked whether it is better to suffer evil than to do it, and he concluded that it is. Some people thought him a fool for that. Others were profoundly struck, but rightly found the thought astonishing, hard to hold. We can lose sight of how miraculous such a perspective is. But it was an assertion of radical meaning in a world which can be terrible. It is a question we should all ask ourselves, knowing that our answer won't save us from suffering. But it might save us from despair in our suffering, as Simone Weil pointed out in her essays on affliction, and the difference between those two states is the difference between heaven and hell. Even in the midst of hell.
The reason for this is that, to find meaning, and maintain a human heart, in the midst of suffering, you need something that goes deeper than that suffering.
When a person is struck a blow that temporarily shatters them - they have lost their family, their best friend has betrayed them with their partner - they may discover that their previous belief in goodness was in part a calculating bargain with reality. "If I am good then life will not hurt me." We all make these bargains without realising it. Usually they are uncovered when we suffer. This is the question which the dead soldier in Malick's film asks - the question which he arouses in the heart of the American looking on his corpse: Suffering comes to all. It is too often a matter of chance. But what do you truly love, when you love truth and goodness? If your love of these is pure - to the degree that it is - you become oriented differently in the world, and life with all its joy and sorrow takes on a different, better meaning.