Why Do We Suffer?


By: Brother Joe Hoover, S.J., Comm ’94

I recently wrote a book about suffering. Why does God allow so much hurt in our lives, permit so many terrible things to happen in his world? I wrote it before the pandemic broke, but the book came out in timely fashion, mid-December, as infections and deaths were ramping up yet again, viciously.

Whatever use this book may or may not have out in the world, it at least helped me to clarify what I think. And what do I think about God and human suffering? That I can’t even really begin to think about God and human suffering. My Jesuit intellectual pursuits in theology and philosophy revealed to me the limits of Jesuit intellectual pursuits.

For instance, at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara, I read about a school of thought within Mahayana Buddhism called Madhyamika — the middle way. This school declares that all of reality, everything that is, may be looked at through two perspectives: conventional and ultimate.

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

A snake on the ground viewed through the lens of conventional reality is there. The serpent is not simply an illusion, an airy vision of nothingness, the usual image of how Buddhists view the world. The snake is not mist in the form of a snake that you can put your hand through. The snake is a thing to be dealt with. It coils, moves, flickers its tongue.

Yet, viewed through the perspective of ultimate reality, that same snake, even though we can see and touch it, is not actually there. Ultimately, the snake has no existence.

It is a strange thing to consider and, if you subscribe to this philosophy, it can throw you into uncertainty. Depending how you look at it, a thing does exist, and that same thing does not exist.

Taking such a view of things decenters us. It throws us off balance. If you are a bodhisattva, a Buddhist student on the path toward enlightenment, considering these two different views of reality prevents you from thinking that you have it all figured out; that you can fully know something when, in fact, you cannot.

Who so often funds the institutions that help the poor, bolster the arts, fund our schools, and build our common sense of social purpose? Financial titans who create economies that create the poor, that shred beauty, that rip apart our sense of social purpose; executives who pay a minimal wage to confect an entire population of an underclass they end up supporting; corporations that fight tooth and nail against the scaffolding of equity that would render their own philanthropy unneeded.

In the religious world, we bow and scrape before the affluent to fund charities their own politics help create the need for.

“The poor exist for the sake of the rich and the rich exist for the sake of the poor,” writes Joe Heschmeyer. “Together we can grow in charity, and draw each other closer to heaven.”

You want insanity? Here it is. I sleep under a freeway so you can get to heaven. Be not fooled dear friend, it’s not true.

And yet, in a way, it is true. Because charity — in particular, “giving from one’s substance,” like the poor woman at the temple treasury — can build virtue. And receiving charity can, well, keep you alive.

Does this make sense? These rigged economic arrangements? Anybody? And should it make sense? What, ultimately, do we know? What can we really grasp about what exactly God is doing? In suffering, or in anything really?

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Trying to create a God who operates in a way that makes sense to us, a divinity who works like other people work: a branch manager, a shortstop, an actuary, a salesman. The Almighty probably cannot be fixed like that. What was Willy Loman selling anyway? No one knows. And we’re all in that theater, watching that wrenching play, all the time.

To put it plainly, if we are lost, uncomprehending as to why we suffer, baffled as to why God allows us all this pain; if we have no earthly idea what the divine is doing in the horror of this pandemic, the insanity of our politics, then that is okay.

Knowing that “we don’t know” can take the pressure off ourselves. If we are thrown into an existential crisis over a tragedy in our lives, we may blindingly realize as we never did before that we have to rely on God and God alone. We have to give all our incomprehension to the Great Comprehender; turn over all that is senseless, to Almighty Sense itself.

Suffering, perhaps, is a way for the arrogant mind to die, and get us to conform ourselves to the Mind beyond all minds. To trust Love itself and see how it changes us. And how it can maybe help us, in some small way, change the world.

Adapted from “O Death, Where is Thy Sting? A Meditation on Suffering.” (Orbis 2020)

Brother Joe Hoover, S.J., is a religious brother in the Society of Jesus working in the arts. As an actor he has appeared off-Broadway off-off Broadway and in several regional productions. His own plays have been produced off-off Broadway. He founded Xavier Theatre and Film to produce new works in the Catholic arts tradition. His essays and short stories have appeared in several publications including Image, The Sun and Best Spiritual Writing. He is the poetry editor at America Magazine, works with Crown Heights Mutual Aid and lives in the Brooklyn Jesuit community.