The Metaphysics of Suffering and Communion With the Dead

“Ultimately our lives are only partially ours. The parts of our lives that change most are those that intrude with mythic vividness into the lives of those we love… As these stories overlap they change, but we have no voice in how or why. One by one our stories are dragged away from us, pulled into the ditches of shared human memory. They are saved, but they are changed. One day my father will be gone except the parts of him I remember and the stories he has told me… How much of him have I not properly understood? What have I not asked? And looking at him I want him never to go. I want him always to be here. There is too much left for us to talk about.” (Tom Bissell, “War Wounds,” Harper’s, December 2004)

There is a strange compulsion to imaginatively return to the sites where our hearts were once broken and our souls suffered greatly. The haunting tragedies we forever attempt to flee are precisely those to which we endlessly journey towards.

Grief is seductive. It is set in motion by the paradoxical movement of a mind that is ceaselessly guided by a desire to resurrect the dead who, by all accounts, resist all interrogation. Painful memories seek to be lived once more, their psychic solidity stubbornly refusing to melt into the tranquil air of forgetfulness.

And so we all too often find ourselves engaged in a symbolic performance of self-flagellation, the victims of a ritualistic mental torture which, however disconcerting, we willingly inflict upon ourselves. It is as though to honour the past one must draw blood from the present.

Each of us is somehow defined—indeed, made more human—by the deeply personal sufferings that we have experienced. Suffering is inextricably bound to our very essence, such that to distance ourselves from once-fallen tears is akin to outrunning one’s own shadow. The scene of yesterday’s crime cheats time and space; legs quickly grow tired, hearts falter.

Yet there is a certain beauty to be found in this deep-seated compulsion to forever eulogize, to frantically cling to that which has long since escaped. We flatter the graves and weep over the faded photographs of those who are no longer with us. Who can deny the profound mythical dimensions of these mournful pilgrimages to sacred shrines and well-thumbed scrapbooks?

To embark on such quests is to offer atonement—either for loving too much, or too little. Of course, the journey is never solitary. Whether to find comfort or lay blame, we desperately transcend the immediacy of the human lifeworld in an ecstatic search for an audience with the divine. With mixed emotions and compelling agendas, we routinely dare to disturb the universe.

The implications of this search extend far beyond the hermetically-sealed realm of our isolated being. Indeed, it is through this cosmic gesture, which is as momentary as it is momentous, that the delicate veil separating life from death, and presence from absence, is lifted by a soul that refuses to be forsaken.

By implicating the entire universe in our personal tragedies, we seek nothing less than a sacred justification for our suffering. Or is it an apology we’re after? Regardless, we miss the essence of the entire gesture if we fail to identify in the unflinching demand for the redemption of sorrow a provocative attempt to overcome the limits of our temporal commitment to a transitory world.

Were it not for our periodic glimpses into the metaphysical unity of the universe, we would be like Sartre’s pitiless characters, imprisoned by an emotionless script and a sterile landscape. Perhaps human existence cannot be wholly reduced to an absurdist fiction, after all. Immersed in the emotional chaos of the world, we attempt to discover a hidden order that will somehow give value to the shedding of tears. After all, to suffer is one thing—to suffer without purpose is quite another.

The transience of being is given an elusive permanence in our painful recollections, the lightness of our bodies firmly anchored to the memories of those we love. It is for this reason alone that we painfully wade into the ditches of shared human memory. Our most painful remembrances constitute an immanent strategy by which we enter into the vital stream of life and, if only for a moment, imagine Sisyphus, alive and happy.



~ by Sean Best on January 15, 2008.

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