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Suffering and the Indirect Way

What does it take to become free?

From Socrates to John Paul II, the philosophical tradition of the West — to say nothing of the rest of the world — has a long history of advocating for "freedom for" over "freedom to." As John Paul II famously put it, "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought." Our lives, these thinkers suggest, are inherently oriented towards something beyond ourselves. To be free, therefore, is not to be able to do anything that we like but rather to be able to align ourselves most closely with the truth of who we are.

This is what forms the basis of most of Western philosophy's search for truth. If freedom really were simply doing whatever we want, we would have little need to understand anything higher than ourselves in order to find fulfillment. The very fact that we feel an impulse to explore the world outside ourselves — beyond the most effective ways to maximize pleasure and minimize pain — is proof that our joy does not lie exclusively in ourselves.

That being said, while exploring truth (i.e., physics and metaphysics) and wrestling with how best to live in accordance with it (i.e., ethics) is a necessary part of the process of becoming truly free, on a practical level we have seen time and again how insufficient philosophy is in itself to achieve actual change. Oftentimes, human nature seems to operate on a completely different wavelength from reason. It is disturbing, unnatural — like building a dam, only to watch the water magically flow straight through it. Modern deconstructionism places the burden of this problem firmly on the shoulders of society. If reality fails to meet the standards of theory, it is theory that is to blame. It all rests on the idea that somehow, somewhere, there is a universal ethic that, if discovered, would at last allow for that magic combination: everything we want and nothing we don't. Pleasure without pain. Love without sacrifice.

But, if there is one thing that our human experience tends to make clear, it is that the direct way is almost never the right one. If you want to "find lasting love," for example, you won't find it by looking for the right person. You find it by becoming the kind of person who can love unconditionally, regardless of how you feel at the moment. Likewise, if you want to become physically healthy, you must be willing to endure the pain of diet and exercise. If you want to become mentally healthy, you need to be willing to forgive those who have hurt you, accept any hurt or trauma in your own past, apologize to those you have hurt, let go of anger, and stop viewing yourself as a victim — or as a perpetrator. To love yourself, in other words, you first must love others.

The key here is this: In order to get what you want in any of these situations, you first have to accept that reality does not meet your expectations. Only then, once you have accepted and embraced the cost, can you reinvent yourself in such a way as to achieve your goal. In a sense, only once you have left the goal behind can you reach it. Or, to put it yet another way, only by losing your life can you save it. The process is painful and often counterintuitive, but religion and science agree that it is the only way to heal.

Many of objective truth's harsher proponents sum all this up with in one unhelpful maxim: "truth hurts." With a shrug of their shoulders, they dismiss all the fear, pain, and existential terror that comes from hearing that your identity and belief system are not only flawed but perhaps even fundamentally invalid. It seems strangely at odds with that other maxim, "the truth will set you free."

Despite this too-often self-aggrandizing presentation, however, we all intuitively know that the truth can hurt. It hurts to find out that someone has cheated on you, that you've failed a test, that you're being demoted, that your flight has been cancelled, and so on and so forth. These disappointments and wounds are inescapable, and they hurt. The same goes for our deeper sense of ourselves: we make mistakes, we hurt people, we misidentify our own core struggles and failings, we misidentify even our thoughts and feelings. It hurts to acknowledge these things, and it hurts even more to face the consequences of our actions in our own lives and the lives of those we love.

But the pain caused by truth is very different from the pain caused by living a lie. To live a lie requires effort. It is like constantly clawing at an open wound, just to make sure it stays open: with time, it grows bigger and festers. The pain caused by truth, however, takes constructive effort. It is healing. And, in fact, rather than being a necessary evil, a by-product of our failure to meet the standards of a distant and dispassionate theory, the pain caused by truth is key to becoming who you were made to be. It is part of the via negativa, and it entails becoming comfortable being without: without noise, without entertainment, without friends, perhaps even without basic necessities. This process is inherently painful.

Yet, to give only a few examples, we can see that it is only those comfortable with rejection who can become a good friend — one who doesn't extract affection from the other, who gives without expectation and is there even on the bad days. Similarly, it is only those who are comfortable with being hurt who can take on the risk of trusting another. It is only those who are comfortable being alone who can effectively distance themselves from unhealthy relationships. And, even more strikingly, it is only those who are willing to suffer for others' sakes who can help a wounded person to heal or save their own broken relationships. It is only this person, who loves those around her in a way consistent both with their needs and with hers, who can freely and fully accept peace and love.

Suffering, therefore, is not only the problem that needs to be solved; rather, suffering — or, more accurately, voluntary sacrifice, freely chosen — is its own solution. It may be extraordinarily difficult to explain why we need to suffer, but it is possible to learn how to suffer well. This is the indirect way, and, while it may not give us "everything we want and nothing we don't", it does us one better. It makes us into everything we should be, and, at last, it frees us to love each other in the way that we (and those around us) actually needed all along.

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