In Terrence Malick’s 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?”
When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must answer that question.
When the world punches a hole in us we can lose a sense of all meaning and value. Is life any longer a good place to be? Is there goodness in me? Will that be met by the world? And by others? Or will they betray me? Not see me? What kind of world do I live in now?
At another point in the movie 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?”
These are questions appearing in language. We need language and symbols to navigate the shattering people can suffer. For at such times everything is in disarray, and so we cannot find our footing or bear the load. Our very body cannot seem to hold what is inside us. But language is form-giving. The words may not come for a time. Sometimes they do not come at all, but even this can be contained and navigated, only by different kinds of symbols, a symbol which can hold the mystery of this evil that has stolen into life while transcending it. This is what crucifixes, Buddhas, and secular saints do for us. I think this film, as with Malick's other masterpiece Tree of Life, does the same as a work of art.
Goodness will not protect you from suffering. Rather an absolute commitment to goodness will enable you to accept your suffering, because your sense of meaning will thereby go 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. It could 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.