One my favourite films is Terence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life. Among many other things, it is a cinematic reflection on the Book of Job told through the story of the O’Brien family and their coming to terms with the death of one of their boys in Vietnam. In one poignant scene, the lead female character, Mrs. O’Brien, asks a simple question to God: ‘Was I false to you?’ At this point in the film, the scene shifts to a portrayal of the narrative of creation through a series of visually stunning sequences depicting the gradual development of the heavens and the earth, all culminating in the emergence of human life. But artful sequences aside, it is entirely understandable if the shift seems like something of a non sequitur. What do things like nebulae and the birth of stars have to do with something as immediate as the painful experience of losing a child?
Indeed, I’ve often felt the same way about God’s response to Job in the midst of his suffering. What do the foundations of the earth or leviathans in the sea have to do with the suffering we painfully endure in the present? It would be more satisfying if chapters 39-41 of the Book of Job were rewritten as an account of God, the project manager, clearly laying out the various stages of the plan of creation and human history, showing how Job’s suffering represents some specific phase of that plan, and finally how this all complies with a set of best practices regulating how an omnipotent being ought to govern the universe. Of course the narrative doesn’t go that way. Both the creation sequence in The Tree of Life and God’s response in the Book of Job remind us that God and the world around us are things that are infinitely bigger than us. There is a mystery to existence that transcends us and the meaning of our suffering can be transformed in relation to that mystery.
The philosopher George Grant, in a short essay titled ‘What is Philosophy?’, argues that the experience of anguish has a distinctive capacity to stir us to a deeper contemplation of the world around us and the mystery of our existence. And it is wisdom to fathom this mystery to discover how we ought to live in light of it. To fathom mystery is to explore the meanings of things beyond their surface appearances. To fathom the mystery of another person is to discover the depths of their interior life – their hopes, fears, joys, and pains. It is to move beyond such superficial things as the colour of their skin, the quality of their clothing, or their social media profile. And it is only in exploring and sharing in the mystery of another person that it is possible to relate rightly to them. On a broader level, this is true of reality. The world that we experience includes deeper levels of mystery.
Suffering forces a choice in us: we can choose either to turn outward to contemplate our pain in relation to mysteries that transcend us or to turn inward and come to the conclusion that our suffering has no meaning beyond the bitterness it yields in us. In the apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), Pope John Paul II shows that the former choice, the choice of faith, enlarges the horizon of meaning surrounding our suffering. We begin to see the suffering of others around us and to explore how we may, even in small ways, help to redeem and alleviate that suffering. And in beginning to do this, our suffering becomes transformed and transfigured. This is not to say that the pain disappears; rather, it does not become the last word. For the Christian, our suffering becomes united with Christ, whose suffering redeemed the world. Suffering, of course, is still a mystery and cannot be fully understood by us; but in connecting our suffering to purposes and meanings beyond ourselves and allowing our suffering to be used for the sake of others, we find the wisdom to live well in the midst of our pain.