To know life is to suffer. There is no growth, no development, no creation that does not involve suffering in some form and some degree of intensity. Suffering is woven into the very code of existence. Strange how it remains such a mystery to us.
Perhaps the Buddha came closest to understanding the reality of suffering and a way to respond to it. His "Four Noble Truths" face head-on both the inevitability of suffering as a given reality in human existence but also a deliverance from the angst of suffering through the practice of non-attachment along the Eightfold Way of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Which leads us, of course, to the question of "right concentration," or meditation. So many approaches to meditation, thankfully, have now been brought to us by credible teachers whose aim is the cessation of suffering or, at least, a lessening of the pain, but also a prospect of realizing more joy, peace, relaxation, and authenticity in life. I can affirm the value of meditation as one who practices it in one form or another at least twice daily.
But still the mystery and meaning of suffering remain -- not only as metaphysical questions but also as psychological promptings, as if to say, there is yet more to deepen our process. This is what I have been referring to in my description of the mother who consoles her crying infant with the soothing words, "It's alright." These words of assurance, it's alright, spring out at us like an ancient mantra from the dimmest edges of humanity's beginnings, like a liturgical offering from the earliest Book of Prayer. There is something in that universal drama of the mother comforting her suffering child that vibrates within our psyche with a tension that will not be stilled. It is embedded within the images of our literature, art, and dreams.
Carl Jung describes it this way:
Each of these images contains a piece of human psychology and
human destiny, a relic of suffering or delight that has happened
countless times in our ancestral story, and on the average follows
ever in the same course. It is like a deeply graven river-bed in the soul,
in which the waters of life, that had spread hitherto with groping and
uncertain course over wide but shallow surfaces, suddenly became a
mighty river. This happens when that particular chain of circumstances
is encountered which from immemorial time has contributed to the
laying down of the primordial image. The moment when the mytho-
logical situation appears is always characterized by a peculiar
emotional intensity; it is as though chords in us were touched that
had never resounded before, or as though forces were unloosed, the
existence of which we had never dreamed. (1928, p. 247)
These "relics of suffering or delight" come to us through our neuro-psychic inheritance not in the form of specific images but as the archetypal, predisposed capacities for thinking, feeling, perceiving and acting as human beings. They appear as specific images only in a particular time and place that give form, coloration, and substance to these impulses of life. We experience them in our dreams, in the creations of our culture, and in the stories, mythologies, religions, and artifacts of our past.
The book of Job is such a relic of suffering. It is an archetypal story that has parallels in many diverse cultures, including Egypt ("Tale of the Eloquent Peasant," second millennium B.C.E.), Mesopotamia ("The Babylonian Job," 1600-1150 B.C.E.), India (found in the Markandeya Purana, uncertain date), Greek tragedy (especially Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound), as well as folk tales from various cultures. (Pope, pp. L-LXVIII) These listings are only a small sample of the multiple listings offered by Pope and others, which serve to remind us that the book of Job represents one variation in a vast body of literature dealing with the mystery and meaning of suffering.
However, to point out its place in a large sea of parallel texts is not meant to diminish the significance of the book of Job for us. By no means. It has washed up on the shore of our present-day consciousness and will not fossilize dormantly, which would make it easy to ignore. Relentlessly, it haunts our on-going preoccupations with the mystery and meaning of suffering. Job's words ring through the text calling us to some unfinished business: "Don't let my call for justice be silenced." (16:8) "I want someone to plead with El (God) for me." (16:21) "Will no one let my words be recorded, inscribed on some monument with iron chisel and engraving tool, cut into the rock for ever?" (19:23, 24) "Will no one give me a hearing?" (31:35)
Each of us may feel a need to respond to Job, whatever our station and circumstances. We cannot avoid Job's plaintive cry for understanding because, as Jung points out, the text is a "relic of suffering." It calls to something deep within, archetypal stirrings, a universal wrestling with the meaning of suffering and questions about the nature of our universe and its creator -- if there might be one.
And so I come back to the text of the book of Job and to Job's questions. As one might expect, I am trained in my profession to hear Job's questions through the filter of depth psychology informed by my profession as Jungian Analyst and Pastoral Counselor. This is to say that I cannot read the text nor hear Job's questions without risking that I will project my personal suppositions, bend the material to fit within my own subjectivity, but that is always the case for each of us considering either a text or a person sitting across from us.
I am also mindful that the text is an ancient one. It is embedded within a worldview and culture foreign to my own. For example, an examination of those texts parallel to the book of Job will reveal a preoccupation with suffering and its root cause. As Pope describes the underlying assumptions:
The Mesopotamian view that evil is an integral part of the cosmic
order is well illustrated ... . Basic to Sumerian theology was the notion
that man's misfortunes result from sin which taints all. ... When evil
befalls a man, there is no recourse but to admit one's guilt and praise
one's god and plead for mercy. ... The attitude of Job's comforters in
the Dialogue is essentially the same as that presupposed in the Sumerian
composition: that the victim must have sinned and has no hope but to
confess and plead for forgiveness and restoration. (p.LV)
This supposition appears to have been one that Job's three "friends" could not turn loose. To the end, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar held to that belief as an infallible dogma that was not to be questioned and certainly not to be resisted by Job. This is what I mean when I talk about those presuppositions or beliefs or dogmas that capture our minds and pre-determine not only the outcome of events but the entry points as well. Listening to an anamnesis requires always an ever-present awareness that we tend to see and hear what we expect to see and hear.
Thus, in addition to the fact that an ancient text cannot be judged as if its characters would have access to the consciousness, values, experiences, and worldview of present-day readers, there is also the possible fallacy of projecting personal suppositions and biases upon the characters and the text itself. These are my cautions. And yet, it seems that this is precisely the entanglement presented in the text, as Job absolutely resists his friends' projections of the theological dogma the theological dogma of his friends that he must have sinned. Not so!, he says. So here is a challenge to the supposition of his age and the culture that produced the final version of the text sometime around the sixth century B.C.E.
Something new is trying to come to consciousness here. And whether it be my prejudiced assumption that I project upon the text, or an insight shaped by my training that affords me a window of objectivity, I can never be one hundred percent positive.
But in either case, I will state my view with the hope that it might throw some light upon the mystery and meaning of suffering. To be continued next month.
Jung, C.G. (1928). Contributions to Analytical Psychology (H.G. and C.F. Baynes, Trans.). London: Kegan Paul.
Pope, M.H. (1965). Job. The Anchor Bible, vol. 15. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc.