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Chapter VIII

The Meaning of Suffering

IT was evident from the outset of our inquiry into the nature of existence that we were considering a system, an organised whole whose parts are apprehended by means of their immanent connections. Events in that system are found to move forward with a certain rhythm or regularity, describable in terms of law. Everything is related to everything else, cause leads to cause, and everywhere it is the point of view of the whole that promises to explain this inter-relatedness. It is difficult to see how a universe could exist unless its substances and forces were unified in an ultimate, orderly whole. A chaotic, an evil, that is, a self-destructive universe is clearly an impossibility. A universe must be good, must realise a unitary end, in order to exist. It takes nothing from the reality and worth of such a system to discover that it is apprehended and understood by means of ideas. As matter of fact, idealism puts one in a position for the first time to understand the real unity of the world. It is clear that there is one ultimate type of reality, that all the elements of life, however diverse in appearance, are grounded in one Self, whose nature is the basis of all law.

For the moment, it seems difficult to find a place for individual man in such a system. Everything appears to be determined by an all-embracing world-plan. Long before man awakens to self-consciousness, fate seems to have chosen for him. Inheritance compels him to suffer for the sins of his parents. He is born into a world of misery from which he vainly endeavours to escape. Life is at best a conflict. It does not apparently relieve the situation to be assured that, after all, experience is of the nature of mind. For one learns of the existence of a thousand unexpected bondages.

Yet this is scarcely one half of the truth. Man is indeed born into a well-established environment. Law everywhere reigns, and the world resistlessly makes itself known in a certain manner. But the mere description of experience is by no means an adequate account of it. The great question is, What is the worth of life? To what end? What are the ideals towards which the immanent Life is tending?

Man seems to be a product of environment. His thoughts and feelings are apparently the ephemeral outgrowths of matter. But, state the case as strongly as we may, we must add that man is also a reactive being. What he believes about life, what he does in the presence of environment, is of more consequence for him than the environment. The meanest facts are transfigured by the moral worth of a righteous deed. The mere fact that two or more alternatives are open before man, that as a moral being possessing the power of choice man may act for better or for worse, is alone sufficient to put the whole sphere of experience in a different light.

Life does indeed forever move forward. Man is compelled to live and to act. But it is only the most servile creature of habit who obeys instinct alone. In so far as man takes thought he practically makes of life what he will. If he humbly bows before what he is pleased to call “fate,” it is on his own responsibility, it is because he has concluded that “fate” is unconquerable. The same principle or fact is regarded as fateful, or as an opportunity for the exercise of freedom, according to our belief concerning it. Once more, then, it is sound philosophy that sets man free.

It is clearly of the utmost importance to arrive at a rational conclusion in regard to the purpose of life, for in the last analysis our actions are regulated, not by the sum total of acquired tendencies and the play of circumstance, but by what we believe. Our conclusion may be rational or irrational, but for better or for worse it is made the basis of action. We may or may not formulate a satisfactory ideal. But be it dogmatic or tentative, we stake our chances upon it. In the absence of determining considerations, it is obviously rational once more to employ the empirical method.* Although we may not see the ultimate goal of the divine activity, we at least perceive certain definite immanent tendencies. Tentatively we may put before the mind the relative ideal which the facts suggest, then test that ideal by the actual results of conduct. For all practical purposes this is enough.

*That is, one should take the clues of individual experience as guides. Life means to each of us what we make out of it.

Naturally, people differ very widely in the values which they assign to experience. Suffering means much or little to us according to the degree of actual benefit we have been able to derive from it. It may mean nothing at all, if our theory of life is constituted of borrowed opinions about pain and evil. It would be absurd to insist that suffering has the same value for all. The mere use of the term “progress,” as applied to the facts of suffering, is confessedly the acceptance of an optimistic ideal. To indulge in such language is by no means to deny the pain, or to overlook the physiological aspects of it. But when all this has been admitted, when one has assigned the mental and physical facts to their proper spheres, it still remains true that there are entirely different ways of regarding the facts. From the point of view of the facts, alone, there are many considerations that indicate the evolutionary value of suffering. Whatever one’s philosophy, then, there is reason to make certain primary distinctions.

In the first place, there is the actual activity denominated “pain.” In the second place, there is the probable purpose or tendency of the pain. Finally, there is the sufferer’s active attitude towards the powers that are displayed. Whether this attitude is one of resistance, of co-operation, or of resignation, depends upon the theory of pain held by the sufferer. Obviously, if one believes that the immanent tendencies of nature make for the good, the sound, and healthy, the active attitude will be profoundly affected by the conclusion.

Since it is a question of understanding and adjustment rather than a question of egoistic “affirmation,” the problem is, What is the true principle of adjustment? The clue is already before us. We have found that life is not only fundamentally mental but that activity is common to both the mental and the physical worlds. We have seen that there is no chasm between mind and matter. We may study life from the point of view of activity and yet be on both sides of the “line” which is said to exist between them. What we mean by our descriptions of nature is that certain activities or vibrations are translated into what we call “consciousness.” I do not see yonder patch of greens and browns, for example, as a motionless, dead thing. Certain wave motions are brought to my eyes, where they are translated into what we call “colour.” I do not hear your voice as a thing by itself. My ears receive the vibrations, and my mind perceives the psychological result. Examine each of your experiences in the world of nature and you will find that they are made known to you through the mental correspondence to what is called “vibration.’’ We are compelled to distinguish between mind and matter because there is a vast difference between (1) activities which, like the perception of fire, are involuntarily brought in upon us, and (2) those activities which, like an emotion, respond to the will. Your whole physical life is a mass of vibrations brought in upon you, reporting themselves in consciousness. When something interferes with the normal vibration, you are made painfully aware of the fact, and you naturally ask how you shall adjust yourself to the change. The whole practical question is, Is it possible not merely to “hold thoughts,” but actually to bring about changes in the disturbed activities of the body? Obviously we must face this larger question, not confine ourselves to the mere thought, for it is the thought which is followed by action that interests us.

Having, then, reached the conclusion that the truth lies deeper than the plane of mental influences, though including these, let us look at the problem from another point of view. Let us regard the soul as a centre of activity, a centre of forces which play upon it. Consciousness makes us aware of the play of force. The vibrations are not necessarily mental; they are mentally known. The soul is acted upon, it is conscious, and it reacts—here are the essential points. We need not ask what these forces are, that is, how far mental, how far physical; but call them in general activities of Spirit. We may well leave to scientific scholars the adjustment of the differences of opinion existing between the regular physician and the mental healer. Our present task is far simpler, namely, the discovery of a doctrine which shall take account of the successes of mental healers yet avoid their excesses and supplement the half-truth in their philosophy. Let us venture the proposition that disease is disturbed action, that is, disturbed equilibrium, using that term in the most general sense. It need not concern us now how far the physical state conditions the mind, or whether the bodily state be largely subject to the mind. The disturbed action in question may either deprive the mind of its poise, or rob the body of its equilibrium; for it is both mental and physical. We are not now concerned to draw a line between bodily and mental influences. Suffice it that mind and body have evolved together, that they are always interrelated, and that in general anything which affects the one affects the other.

In a state of health every organ in the body functions rhythmically. For example, the regular beating of the heart, or the measured pulsations of the breath. Disease is a more or less general, temporary, or permanent disturbance of this rhythmic functioning. As surely as the heart tends to regain its normal action when the cause of temporarily increased pulsations is removed, so does every function in the body tend to recover its rhythm. This natural restorative instinct is the wisest provision in the entire physiological economy. Without it we should be powerless to survive. Pain is an indication that this rhythm has been disturbed at some point, that the forces are gathering to meet the injury and overcome it. It is nature’s wonderfully beneficent warning that equilibrium has been lost and that we must obey certain conditions while the injury is being healed.

On the mental side the state which corresponds to this normal functioning is equanimity. Equanimity is of course somewhat disturbed when bodily equilibrium is affected, and the body responds to the mental state when emotions or other psychical activities mar the even flow of consciousness. Mind and body are like delicately poised instruments; either one responds to changed activity in the other. As here used, we understand by the term “mind,” all temporary and habitual states of consciousness, such as sensation, emotion, volition, intellection. By the term “soul,” we understand the spiritual being within and behind these states of consciousness and modes of activity.

In reference to disease, the disturbed action in question makes itself known to the soul. The pain translates itself into consciousness and calls for a reaction favourable to the recovery of equilibrium. From the present point of view it matters not so much what the particular pain is as the kind of reaction it meets at the outset. For the first warning sensation usually presents alternatives. In many instances the entire history of the disease depends upon the manner in which the inceptive disturbance is met.




Let us repeat, the soul is a centre of forces upon which it reacts and which it may learn to transcend and control. On the outside are the physical forces. Nearer the centre are the mental, and nearer yet the intimately spiritual. The heart of life is a centre of power and the kind of life found upon the surface depends upon the degree of spiritual consciousness attained. A man may be so absorbed in the physical life that he thinks himself a physical being. He may be so conscious of mental influences that he deems life a play of thought. Or, he may be spiritually so quickened that the mental life seems a superficial sport and play.

In case of illness, germs of contagious disease may or may not play a part. The state of mind or belief may or may not be favourable. There is something deeper than either germs or beliefs. It is not now a question of superficial factors. It is a question of the soul and the powers it uses. Suppose a person rushes to me with the news of a terrible railroad accident in which a dear friend of mine was probably killed. At once there is an uprush of emotions tending to disturb the equilibrium of mind and body. If I give assent, note this, if I give assent, such a reaction will surely follow. But, if I chance to be a wise man with a certain degree of composure, I recollect that such reports are apt to be hoaxes; and even if this one be true my friend may not be injured, or may not have taken that train. At any rate, I will await confirmation of the report. If it be confirmed in general, I will await particulars concerning my friend. If at last I learn that my friend was indeed killed I will meet the occasion with composure. To give way to excitement would avail nothing, and if grief comes it shall be more wisely expressed. Thus my mind passes through a number of inhibitions, or checks, until I decide what course to pursue. The success with which I each time take the wiser alternative will depend upon the habitual degree of repose, poise. Note, then, that behind the temptation to fly off my centre and give assent to the tendency to excitement, behind all my reasoning, there is a certain attitude of soul. The mind may affect the body, and may even control it; (within limits); but farther back is the soul which controls the mind. Unless my decision to be calm is supported by a well-trained soul, the mere thought may have little influence. The attitude of soul is indeed an acquired attitude, but it was acquired by facing situations like the above where actual force must triumph over force, where a greater must conquer a lesser.

Suppose now that the condition is a serious bodily state. The regular functioning or rhythmic action in the body is so far disturbed that the condition is known as “disease.” The disturbed action or disease is due to overwork, a nervous collapse, or some other psycho-physical excess. Whether the first cause was mental or physical need not now concern us. The question is, How shall this disturbed action be met? By a superior kind of action which tends gradually to restore equilibrium.

Here is a woman, for example, who is a nervous wreck after years of extremely active life in the social world of a surging American city. For years, every hour of her life has been filled with intense, high-strung activity. There has been no time of true rest. There has been no complete recreation or change. All her capital has been spent. The last atom of reserve power was called into service long before the nervous collapse. Conventionally speaking, the woman has “nervous prostration,” and that is all that is usually said. The wise doctor of medicine would frankly admit that medicine would be practically useless; it would only be given in case the patient’s faith required it. He would say that the nervous or ganism must gradually be rebuilt during months and months of rest in a favourable environment. The nerves must be “fed,” the wasted tissues restored. The mind must be kept quiet and there must be nothing to impede nature’s course. The doctor’s care would thus be devoted to the particular symptoms in this case, the best way to remedy them, and the immediate needs of the patient. His science would be brought to bear to understand the disease. Very little would be said at any time about the ultimate origin and permanent cure of nervous prostration.

The mental healer, on the other hand, would trace the trouble to worry, fear, wrong belief, disturbing mental pictures, and the like. He would not discuss symptoms. He would say nothing about “feeding the nerves,” but would sit quietly by the patient day after day, holding before the mind a picture of this woman as perfect and in perfect health. He would give some advice in regard to the thoughts, but would at first say nothing about the theory of mental cure. The theory would be introduced more and more as the months passed and the sufferer gradually recovered. The doctor would trace the disease to disordered nerves. The mental healer would find its source in a disordered mind. Both, we will say, would be partly right, and nature would restore the patient in either case. The woman might be a trifle wiser in either event, but would she know how to live so that nervous prostration would be impossible?

Under either practice it is to be noted that the healer would be powerless to effect a sudden cure. The doctor would be too wise to expect it. The mental therapeutist might anticipate it, but it would not come. Temporary relief and a glossing over might come, but not a cure. There is a meaning, in this fact that recovery is gradual. It is a poor rule that does not apply in both directions. The disease came on even more gradually than it disappeared. But let us bear in mind that the present theory of disease is by no means hostile to the truth of spiritual healing. All the mental influences which we have considered in the foregoing chapters may be present and may be factors. The main point here emphasised is that all these influences, tendencies, and causes, as well as the physiological conditions, are relative to the soul which owns them. Investigation thus drives us deeper and
deeper until, passing from the physiological to the mental conditions, we finally penetrate beneath the profoundest mental layer, or plane, and enter the realm of spiritual causation, or the attitudes of the soul.

Physical or natural causation may therefore be true in its own right. If I meet with an accident and break a leg or receive a cut, I need not ask, “What was I thinking?” Mental causation may also hold on its own plane, as when I misinterpret a painful sensation out of which I proceed to develop heart disease. But spiritual causation is also true. It is pure dogmatism to insist that causation is limited to any one realm. Therefore if we are to formulate a really profound theory we must start with the activities which are fundamental to all.

It is well known, for example, that many diseases are due to nervous shock. Whether or not a person suffers a violent nervous reaction in such a case depends upon the degree of composure. The degree of pain suffered depends upon the presence or absence of nervous tension. Fear is doubtless a factor in many cases, but fear gains the mastery only when there is lack of self-control. Pain may be enormously increased or greatly diminished by muscular rigidity, in the one case, and restful relaxation in the other. A sudden outburst of pain which would carry everything before it in some instances, by arousing the most terrible fears, would pass almost unnoticed in another instance when the meaning of the sensation was understood. Dyspepsia, catarrh, diseases of the lungs, rheumatism, paralysis, and a hundred other maladies are, relatively speaking, effects, externals, when compared with the mode of using the psycho-physiological forces whose disturbed equilibrium was the basis of these gradually developed conditions. For disease springs out of the whole life and must be studied from the point of view of the whole. There may be a dozen superficial diseases with specific names. Many physicians may try their skill in the removal of these conditions. But if there be one fundamental disease that is untouched these effects will re-appear when the treatment ceases.

To purify a stream we must penetrate to its first source. And back of all primal sources in every human being, without exception, there is a mode of meeting life which is fundamental to every phase of the individual’s existence. Optimistic ideals may accompany natural restoration to health and seem to produce it, but there may be no necessary connection. All these factors may be influential but we are in search of the decisive factor. One point is clear all along. Every restorative process is primarily nature’s instinctive effort to react, or regain equilibrium. The utmost any physician of any kind ever did was to aid in the removal of obstructions. It is a question of the kind of activity which best assists nature.

It is clear, then, that the direction of mind is not all. It is sometimes the controlling factor, but is at times itself controlled. People do not consciously think themselves into disease or simply “believe” they have a certain malady. The subconscious mind, wherein we revolve and make our own the ideas and impressions that come to us, is a far more potent factor in our experience than merely conscious thought. The influence of our opinions and habitual beliefs, our fears and traditional theories of disease, is so subtle, so closely connected with every aspect of life, that we are largely unconscious of its power over us. We do not see how our states of mind can affect bodily conditions; and consequently we do not include these subtle effects in our interpretations of disease, until we learn that the direction of mind often carries the energy of the organism with it. Human experience is in a sense what we make it by our thought, but to that one word “thought” must be added the whole life of man. Our inquiry has taught us little if it has not shown that experience is a union of objective and subjective elements; that even in the simple experience of physical sensation there is present not only the substantial basis for which the materialist contends, but also the thought which makes our life primarily mental. If the reader will bear this dual aspect of experience in mind, he cannot misunderstand this chapter.*

*The point of view is obviously radically different from that of the mental therapeutist, since the emphasis is put upon activity rather than upon thought, and activity is both mental and physical.

It is clear that suffering is not a mere “state of mind,” as the mental healers affirm, but is a condition of the entire individual. Everyone who has given much attention to the subject of disease from this broader point of view must be convinced of this. In fact, it makes little difference, in one sense, what the physical malady is called; for on the disposition of the patient depends the nature and intensity of the disease. Back of all chronic invalidism, for example, there is usually a disposition that is hard to influence, whose traits of character are made known in every aspect of the disease. On the other hand, an unselfish person, devoted to a life of self-denial, or one who is absorbed in congenial work, is apt to be freest from disease. Those who have time and money to be ill, those who live in and for themselves, and have nothing to take their consciousness away from physical sensation, never lack for some symptom out of which to develop ill-health.

The fact that so much depends on the temperament and beliefs of each individual renders it difficult fully to describe the causes of disease. Some people are so hard to influence in any way, so tenacious of a condition, that a simple malady may be worse than a much-dreaded disease in a case where the disposition is pliable. The organic structure is tight and unyielding in many cases. People are too exacting, too intense in thought and action, or too opinionated and self-assertive to be eas-
ily moved. In such cases the struggle is always severe when it comes, and nature has a hard task to overcome so much rigidity. Many suffer from mere want of the action that comes from physical exercise. Some live too much in the so-called “spiritual” phase of life, and are out of adjustment to the everyday life of the world. Others are starving for spiritual food, and are in need of mental quickening, if not of severe intellectual discipline. Narrow religious opinions have a cramping effect on the whole life, both mental and physical. The tendency to nervous hurry is responsible for a large proportion of the more modern ailments. People dwell in fixed and narrow directions of life, until they become “cranky” or insane.

Worry and fear play an important part in all varieties of disease, and some people have scarcely a moment’s freedom from some tormenting belief or mental picture. Ill-will, want of charity, jealousy, anger, or any emotion which tends to draw one into self, to shut in and contract, is marked in its effect; for, if continued, it disturbs the whole organism, it is reflected in the subconscious life, and finally in the body, where it is treated as a purely physical disease. Unrealised ambition, suppressed grief, continued unforgiveness, habitual dwelling upon griefs and troubles instead of living above them, disappointments, and a thousand unsuspected causes, which impede the free and outgoing expression of the individuality, have a corresponding effect on the general life.

So much, then, for the mental and physical disturbances that bring about disease, so far as we are here concerned with them. Our chief concern is the mode of life that enables one to regain health and to keep it;. Here, again, the emphasis is put upon conduct, not upon mere thought.*

*I have developed these thoughts more in detail in “A Book of Secrets,” chaps. vi.-xiii.

It is universally admitted that there is a natural healing power resident in the body. This power is common to all, or nearly all, forms of organised life; and by observation of the higher animals we have learned how thoroughly and quickly it cures under favourable conditions. Many people have learned to relax and to keep quiet, like the animals, giving nature a free opportunity to heal their maladies. No one has ever discovered limits to this power, and some are firmly convinced of its ability to heal nearly every disease. It can knit bones together. If one meets with an injury or merely gets a splinter into one’s finger, this resident force immediately sets to work in accordance with certain laws. There is a gathering about the injured part, and an outward pressure tending to expel any obstacle foreign to the body. Everyone knows that the healing process is impeded or quickened according to the way we deal with it. The process is simple and fairly well understood, so far as a mere injury is concerned. We rely upon it, and know how to adjust ourselves to it. But what happens when the equilibrium of the body has been interfered with in another way, and the vital functions impeded? Do we wait as patiently for nature to heal us as when we meet with an accident? No, nine times out of ten we mistake its cause, call it a disease which we think we have “caught,” misinterpret our sensations, and resist the very power which tries to heal us. This resistance, intensified by dwelling upon sensation and careful observation or symptoms, adds to the intensity of the suffering, until the trouble becomes pronounced, if not organic or chronic.

But, despite our resistance, the resident restorative power is ever trying to make itself known, ever ready to free the body from any obstacle or inharmony, and restore the natural equilibrium. It is continually purifying, cleansing, throwing off all that is foreign. It is trying to free us from any inheritance which may cause trouble or suffering. Wherever we are weak, unfinished, undeveloped, that weak point, that undeveloped state, or that animal residuum, is the seat of pressure from within of this same power, trying to make us better and purer. It ever penetrates nearer and nearer the centre of the organism. If one is exposed to the cold, to contagious disease, or whatever the influence, the power is still there to protect and to heal. In all natural functions the power is with us, fully competent to secure their free and painless activity. It works through instinct and impulse for our welfare. On a higher plane the evolutionary power is operative in character, urging us to be unselfish, to understand the law of growth, and to obey it. On the spiritual level it is ever ready to guide and to inspire us, but apparently not so aggressive here, since so much more depends on our receptivity and desire to learn. On all these planes the power is pressing upon us from within, trying to expand from a centre, as the rose-bud expands or as the seed develops when its resident life is quickened. Ultimately speaking, it is the power of God. It is beneficent, good, evolutionary, calling for trustful co-operation and restfulness on our part. We need not go anywhere or think ourselves anywhere to find it; for it is with us in every moment of experience, yet ordinarily unknown, rejected, and opposed.

If, then, it be asked why passion is so persistent, why evil has such power, why disease is so positive and real, there can be but one ultimate answer. The reality behind the appearance is to be found through acknowledgement of the values attributable to the life that is immanently active with us; the suffering, the evil, is largely due to our maladjustment to the immanent life, in our ignorance of its nature and its purpose with us. There is some obstacle, some inharmony to be overcome. The restorative power is trying to free us from it; and, when it comes in contact with it, friction results. There is an agitation made known to us as “ pain.” This sensation we resist, not understanding it; and it becomes painful in proportion to our resistance.

To illustrate. The case was reported not long ago of a woman who was suffering with severe neuralgia. In her despair she was walking the floor, and her physician said the pain would not be relieved for forty-eight hours. Word came to her from one who had learned that much suffering is due to resistance to the remedial power to “let it come.” The effect was immediate. The lady had been nerving herself to endure the pain, thereby increasing the intensity which first caused it; and the message revealed the whole process to her. She relaxed mentally, and surrendered the hold by which she had tried to endure the pain, became quiet, and fell asleep. This case is typical of a thousand others.*

*For this incident, as well as for many of the ideas in this chapter, I am indebted to Annetta G. Dresser, whose long experience with the sick led to this interpretation of suffering.

Again, those whose task it is to do considerable mental work learn after a time when they have worked long enough; for, if they worked beyond a certain point, they become aware of pressure in some part of the head, from which a reaction is likely to follow. This is especially noticeable in learning a new language, taking up a study requiring close concentration, or any new occupation, art, science, or any form of physical exercise to which one is unaccustomed. One is soon conscious of fatigue, because the task is a new one, and habits have not yet been formed. The general tendency is to give way to the feeling of fatigue. Many become discouraged at this point, and give up study or exercise, saying that it makes them tired, and they cannot bear it.

What is this sense of fatigue? It is evidently due to the calling of power into a new direction. The new life clarifies. It comes into contact with an uncultivated portion of the being, physical as well as mental; and, meeting with resistance, friction of some sort is the natural result. But this friction does not mean that one cannot exercise or study. It means the formation of a new habit and direction of mind, and the best work is done after one has passed this “hard place.” It calls upon one to wait a while, and let the agitation cease, let the new power settle down and become one’s own. It is nature telling one to be less intense for the moment, to extend the limit of one’s activity little by little.

It is a mistake, then, to give way entirely to a feeling of fatigue and of pain. By yielding to it, one’s attention is put upon it, with the result that it is increased, until the consciousness is absorbed in physical sensation. Rightly understood, pain is the conflict of two elements, a purer element coming in contact with a lower, and trying to restore equilibrium. Let us repeat. It is remedial. It is beneficent, the most beneficent of all nature’s arrangements, the best evidence of the unceasing presence of a resident restorative power. Through it we are made aware that we have a Life not wholly our own that cares for us, and is capable, perfectly competent, to take us through any possible trouble, since it is there only for our own good, since it is itself thoroughly good.

It is obviously the power that one should think of, and not of the sensation. In this way, if one is determined to see the good, to think of the outcome, one will live out of and above the sensation; for all these thoughts help. The consciousness is either turned in one direction or in the other. It either helps or it hinders. One either moves with the current of life, or tries to stem it. In one direction the thought is turned into matter, in the other toward spirit. In one direction toward self, with a tendency to withdraw, shut in, contract; in the other, towards the higher Self who is telling us to be wiser.

The downward attitude may be illustrated by instances of suppressed grief, fear, or any emotion which causes one to draw into self. The natural restorative power tries to throw off that which has been suppressed. A gainful sensation in some part of the body is the result; and, mistaking the sensation, the mind, full of fear, contracts more intensely, thus causing the sensation to increase, until nature can only restore equilibrium by a violent reaction, which receives the name of some well-known disease.

But why do we resist?, why do we draw into the consciousness of physical sensation? Obviously, because we are ignorant of the immanent Life that is moving upon us. We have been educated to believe that disease is a physical entity. The fears and sympathetic words of friends help the process. The possible symptoms we are likely to suffer are graphically described, the memory of past experiences of suffering is recalled, until finally the whole diseased condition is pictured before us, and the thought is every moment becoming more firmly fixed in the wrong direction. The mind once established in the wrong direction, the activities of the entire organism respond.

It is important to note that one cannot judge by physical sensation, but should look beyond it. In sensitive natures the pain is very much exaggerated, and is no guide at all. Sometimes the sensation is so keen and the pressure is reduced to such a fine point that one’s consciousness is like a caged bird fluttering about in a vain endeavour to escape. Shut in there with such intense activity, the wildest fears are aroused when there is no reason for alarm. The trouble is simply very much restricted. The resident Life is pressing through a very narrow channel; and relief will come in due time if one is quiet, patient, not trying to endure the pain, but letting nature complete its task.

When the emotions are touched, the struggle is intense, and is more likely to be misunderstood. The immanent Life, moving upon man where he is weak and undeveloped, through instinct, passion, and impulse, produces restlessness, which in turn causes him to rush now into this thing and now into that, and perhaps commit a deed which from another point of view is called a “crime,” even before he is aware of what he is doing. The very tendencies and instincts which would guide him in his development, if he understood them, are misdirected. An impulse blesses or curses, according to the attitude towards it, the way in which it is followed, blindly or intelligently. Man never conquers himself by self-suppression anymore than by indulgence, but by adjustment.

The meaning of much of our moral suffering and evil is, then, to teach the right use of our powers; and moral misery and degradation will probably continue until the lesson is learned. All cases of sickness, misery, evil, call for better self-comprehension. If there be one meaning which may be found in them all, it is, in one word, progress,—the effort of the Spirit to give us freedom. If we understood this, we should have a larger sympathy and charity for the whole human race, and be spared much suffering over the sins and crimes of others, and should look for the meaning, the Spirit, behind all wrong acts and all degraded lives.*

*There are, of course, many other problems involved. The present discussion is devoted to an underlying interest.

The great question, then, in all problems of suffering and evil, regarded from the point of view of values and ideals, is this: What is God doing with us? What is the ideal toward which the immanent Life is moving? All secondary questions reduce themselves to this; for everything goes to show that the universe is a system, an organism, an adjustment of means to ends for the benefit and development of the whole, inspired by one grand purpose. We did not make the world order. We cannot change it; and, if our life in it is full of misery, it is for us to discover how we make that misery, how we rebel, how we resist, and what the order means, in and through our lives. If a nation is torn by internal troubles, by wars and wrangling of conflicting parties, it is evident that it has not yet learned the great lesson of human brotherhood, and that its troubles must continue in one form or another until it discovers what the evolutionary energy means, what it is trying to make known through these conflicts. Contest and controversy will continue in the same way between science and religion, between the great religions and the sects into which many religions are divided, until men learn that all truth is one and universal, and does not depend on any book or any person, but is the inherent property of all, trying to make itself known through these very controversies, revealed in every fact of life. Theory and practice will also be at variance until it is clear that in a sense they are profoundly one, that what a man does he believes, regardless of his boasted theory. Impulse or instinct will be man’s guide until he learns what is behind it, until he stops to reflect and act intelligently with, not against, the higher forces of his being; for thoughtlessness is the besetting sin of man. A large proportion of the crimes committed by him would be prevented if he stopped to consider the consequences, not only the suffering which would be caused to others, but his own severe punishment, caused solely by his own acts.

From the point of view of values and ideals, we may therefore say that, suffering is intended to make man think. Behind all experience moves one great aspiring Power, developing and perfecting the world. It moves straight towards its goal unceasingly and without permanent hindrance. Wherein man is adjusted to it, he is already free from suffering. He moves with it, and knows how to be helped by it. But wherein he still acts ignorantly, he suffers, and is sure to be in conflict until he understands the law of growth.

Man has been defined as “a pleasure-loving animal.” He is lazy, and will postpone thinking for himself or try to shift his responsibility until he learns that everything depends on the development of individuality. But a day comes when he begins to reflect and to see the meaning of it all. Everywhere, in the outer world, in history, in politics, in religion, he finds two forces contending with each other. Turning to his own nature, he finds the same, a higher, rational, moral and spiritual self contending with a lower, an impulsive, animal self. He sees that he must obey the one and neglect the other, or, better, lift the other to a higher plane. He sees that evil is a relative term,* depending on our point of view, and that conduct which seems perfectly justifiable on one plane of existence is condemned on a higher plane, where different standards prevail. It becomes clear that virtue or goodness can only be attained through an experience full of contrasts and friction, an experience which calls out the best that is in us,—true sympathy, love, and character. The meaning of his own mysterious past becomes clear. He sees the rich compensation for all that he has suffered in the wisdom and character it has brought him. And, finally, in this far-reaching adjustment of means to ends he recognises the love of God, and proves to his own satisfaction that love really dwells at the heart of the universe.

*This is, of course, no excuse for it.

The discovery, then, that there is no escape from the operation of cause and effect, neither mental nor physical, is a turning-point in the progressive career of man; for the majority still persuade themselves that they will somehow be excused. Suffering is necessary only to bring us to a knowledge of the law, to bring us to a certain point; and it will persist until that point is reached. Our experience of today is largely conditioned by our past life. It is what we have passed through which makes it possible for us to stand where we do today. Consequently, what we do and think today will largely govern our experience of tomorrow and of all future days. Fate has not decided everything for us, after all; for it was by our own consent, unconsciously, thoughtlessly, and consciously, that we suffered. Our fate is, that through our individuality something is bound to come forth, since the resistless power of Almighty God is behind it. Our freedom lies in choosing whether to move with this progressive tendency or against it; for man may evidently continue to oppose and misuse the power that would bless him. He may postpone the lesson which at some time and somewhere he must learn. If, then, in any case the result will sometime be the same, it is matter of economy to learn the real course of events as soon as possible.

As hard, then, as it may seem to be compelled to suffer the results of unwise conduct, it is through this discovery that we learn the meaning of suffering and the way out of it. Once more, then, we must look beyond physical sensation to the conscious man behind it, choosing, willing, acting, determining his conduct, and his pain or pleasure, by his direction of mind. It is impossible in one chapter to consider suffering in all its phases; but, if this central thought is clear, if the reader has stopped to consider the intimate relationship of God to man in every moment of life, these neglected problems will be equally clear.

Not all suffering is evolutionary. Not every evil act has its discernible meaning. Most of our suffering is purely incidental, and passes off without leaving us any the wiser; but all suffering, all evil, may become evolutionary. Every experience will teach us something if we question it, and will yield its message of hope.

Finally, then, it is clear that for each of us the question of suffering is a matter of experience, and that all theories of it must be empirically tested. For here, far more than in any other domain of life, theory avails little; it is what we actually prove that settles the question. “They that are well need no physician.” Those who have not had the first inkling of mental influences are often most quickly benefited by the superficial doctrines of mental therapeutists. But those who have lived and suffered deeply know that it is life, not theory, that avails. It is when some deepening experience comes, an experience that proves the utter superficiality of all merely mental theories, that we begin to make the great transition from appearance to reality. Suffering is a reality. It has to do with the deepest powers and interests of our nature. Mere thinking about it will not suffice. It is impossible to advance one step farther than we have individually wrestled, tested, tried, proved, and conquered. One of course needs all the assistance which optimism can give. It is sometimes necessary to make affirmations even in the face of facts. But the essential is not the thought, but the deed; not the suggestion, but the attitude.

Philosophy and practice are at one here. There is no reason for saying that the universe is merely an affair of thought. Man is far more than a thinker. God is infinitely more than the idea of God. Life is real, life is earnest, it is substantial. God is power. Man is an active being. The universe is a theatre of forces. Thoughts come and go, but deeds abide. Thought is reflective, imitative, secondary; it interprets, seeks to understand. It is power, life, that is primary—when force meets force, and life meets life. Only by thinking can one understand. But only by doing may one accomplish. Hence thought must not forget what it sought to understand. Man must not forget to refer back to experience and test theory by practice. It is on the level of power that one comes into relation with the immanent Life. It is that Life, together with our reactions upon it, that has made us what we are. Therefore, since “conduct is three-fourths of life,” it is by wiser conduct that one at last solves the problem of suffering.


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