Friday, 13 September 2019

Suffering is not a mistake

Photo: Alan Paxton
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake. 

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

The Quaker way, with its emphasis on the Inward Light, is sometimes mistaken for one of these otherworldly spiritualities. But Quaker experience includes a far more realistic appreciation of the role of suffering in human life. In modern culture it is generally taken for granted that the aim of life is ‘happiness’ (understood as a positive mood or pleasant emotional states) and that our choices should be based on deciding what will bring the most happiness and the least suffering. This is in stark contrast to the actions of those Quakers throughout history who have deliberately chosen persecution, impoverishment, and costly and dangerous commitments in response to the leadings of the Inward Guide. If their goal was happiness, Quakers would never have stood up to governments and oppressive church institutions to demand religious freedom. They would not have gone to prison for conscientious objection to conscription, or like the US Quaker Tom Fox, been murdered working for peace in Iraq. For the Quaker way, it is not happiness or freedom from suffering that is the goal of life, but faithfulness to the life of the Spirit within, whatever it brings. 

Why should anyone choose to follow such a path, if it does not promise to give us happiness or spare us pain? Perhaps one answer is that there is a deeper need; for a life that is charged with meaning through relationship with the Inward Guide. Happiness cannot provide a meaning for life, because it depends on finding a meaning in something else. Pleasure, comfort and luxury rapidly give way to boredom and restlessness. Our deepest need is for a sense of the meaningfulness of our life. We can tolerate endless hardships and frustrations in enthusiastic service of a goal which is full of meaning for us. Without meaning, all our pleasures turn to ashes, and no rewards are sufficient to motivate us to action. 

Quakers and others have been willing to endure persecution and hardship in the service of the Inward Guide, because its leadings have been charged with meaning and purpose. The guidance of the Spirit has illuminated their lives with profound significance that made sacrifices worthwhile and brought the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering. The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described this understanding of the religious path:
“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”
(Macmurray ‘Search for a Faith’)
This is an extract from my new book 'The Guided Life', which is available now from the Quaker Bookshop.


  1. I think this poem by William Stafford comes very close to the point made in Craig's post.

    "There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
    things that change. But it doesn’t change.
    People wonder about what you are pursuing.
    You have to explain about the thread.
    But it is hard for others to see.
    While you hold it you can’t get lost.
    Tragedies happen; people get hurt
    or die; and you suffer and get old.
    Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
    You don’t ever let go of the thread."

  2. Peter Herissone-Kelly15 September 2019 at 18:51

    There's a nice distinction being made in this extract, I think, between happiness and joy, since you write that there is "the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering". There is a lovely quotation from Joyce Grenfell, which says (I may be unintentionally paraphrasing due to poor memory!) "I am not interested in the pursuit of happiness, only the discovery of joy".

    I guess we always have to be careful, in accepting suffering and the important role it might have in our lives, not to tip over into masochism, or a sort of fascination with suffering. Arguably (though not indisputably), for example, as important a figure as Simone Weil failed successfully to achieve this.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)