Ordinary heroes shine on suffering


Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, prolific writer in Yiddish, often made his characters ask the eternal questions. Chief among these was: Why do we suffer? For to be human is to suffer, but it is also human to seek to solve this great puzzle. There appears to be no satisfactory solution, however, even though mighty intellects have often tried to supply one.

Job's comfortersThe Book of Job, probably written in the 6th century BC, and therefore the oldest book in the Bible, has the matter of suffering as its subject. Job was a man greatly blessed in life: he had ten living children, property, wealth, and many animals. He was 'the greatest of all the men in the east'.

But then, being tested by God, he lost his children and all his worldly goods, and was visited by a plague of boils as a kind of last straw. His friends, the famous 'Job's comforters', insisted his trials were a punishment for sin.

Fast forward to Shakespeare, who made pagan King Lear complain that 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.' 

And on further still to writers like Camus, who thought that relentless and irrational suffering was simply part of an absurd world with all its indifference and meaninglessness. In his towering work The Plague, Camus took up the themes explored in the Book of Job.

At this point in a fairly long life, and certainly without a mighty intellect, I can't profess to have any answers, except that it is obvious that time and chance happeneth to all.

Two examples of such happenings are the huge numbers of ill-fated refugees fleeing Syria and other trouble spots, often dying in the attempt to reach a tenuous sort of safety; and, closer to home, the needless death of young Sarah Paino of Hobart, wife and mother, who was killed when a speeding stolen car, with an underage driver at the wheel, crashed into hers. Her two-year-old son and unborn baby, who was later delivered by doctors, survived.

In today's world of high-speed, hi-tech communication, we are only too privy to the hardship that is everywhere. Even when experienced vicariously, examples of evil, suffering, and loss threaten to overwhelm us. Small wonder that American research indicate a marked lessening in empathy in college students, who seem less and less inclined to walk a mile in another person's moccasins, and that counsellors and social workers voice concern about so-called compassion fatigue in Western countries.

These measures, I think, are part of our defence mechanisms: we have to survive, and so cannot afford, we tell ourselves, to be drained by worry about, and sympathy for, other people.

But sometimes the better angels of our nature triumph. Take the case of Australian life-saver Simon Lewis, who recently returned from working with Lifeguard Hellas on the Greek island of Lesbos where, it is calculated, 12,000 people have arrived so far this year, most of them in highly unsafe rubber dinghies. The team was involved in the rescue of more than 500.

As well, Lewis and his supporters raised more than $22,000 in a month, an amount that enabled the purchase of a new jet ski, vital to rescue efforts.

Lewis, understandably, says he is not the same person. The people rescued cannot speak English, he said, 'but they say thank you with their eyes'.

Daniel Stirling, husband of Sarah Paino, grateful for community generosity and support, apparently broke down when trying to thank the people of Hobart, who donated more than $200,000 over a mere four days in order to help him and his two sons. He also thanked the doctors who saved the baby, currently reported to be in a stable condition.

In his soul-searching, Job asked two important questions: Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding?

Writers have attempted answers. In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamasov, Ivan Karamazov says 'I believe like a child that suffering can be healed and made up for ...' Bashevis Singer said he had discovered that 'kindness is everything in life'.

But a person of more modest gifts, American writer Susan Warner, also attempted instruction. In her hymn for children, 'Jesus Bids Us Shine', written in the 19th century, we are likened to candles:

In this world is darkness,
So let us shine,
You in your small corner,
And I in mine.

People like Simon Lewis and the donors of Hobart are surely doing just that.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, suffering, Sarah Paino, Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Book of Job



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Existing comments

Suffering is a big subject. Often, I think "is there no end to suffering?" And, of course, in this life there isn't. Job's suffering is a mystery, that's the answer we are given. I think the ordinary heroes who shine on suffering are those who care, 24/7, for a disabled child, for a dying partner, for a partner with dementia. These are people I have contact with daily or weekly (perhaps that should be spelt 'weakly'). I greatly admire those who reach out with gifts of their time, money and, so importantly, prayers. That's heroic too.

Pam | 28 January 2016  

Many people have taken up the problem of evil and suffering. Religious texts, mythology and literature are full of it. I think some of the modern philosophical approaches are somewhat defeatist. The most profound answers seem to involve the element of hope.

Edward Fido | 28 January 2016  

This beautiful reflection places loving action as the best response to the intractable problem of suffering.

Ian Fraser | 29 January 2016  

Perhaps it is all too easy for someone who has lived the proverbial three score and ten with barely a scar to show for the experience – beyond the usual disappointments, failures, betrayals from friends and deaths of loved ones experienced by everyone – to comment on this question, but try to imagine a world where there was no suffering. Try to imagine a world where there were no disasters, natural or man-made, which left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless; imagine a world free of disease where we all lived out our three score and ten then died peacefully at home in bed with scarcely a twitch of the big toe; imagine a world where every parent reared model children who turned out to be model pupils who went on to become model citizens and politicians who created model societies living in peace and harmony with other model societies all around the world. If you can imagine such a world, then ask yourself the question: exactly what would be the point of living in such a world? In that imaginary world we would cease to be human, we would be little more than automatons destined for insanity. We are human only through engagement with adversity and while the world we live in with all its suffering may seem difficult to understand, our imaginary world would be utterly incomprehensible. Now, while that might be small comfort to a refugee fleeing from terror, or to a husband who lost his wife in a senseless act of idiocy, it might be useful to point out that the world we live in today is almost entirely of human construction. We came out of Africa without even a pair of rubber thongs between the lot of us and then set about building a world almost guaranteed to produce destructive human behaviour. For what it’s worth, that the way it seems to me.

Paul | 29 January 2016  

Why do we suffer???. There are 3 main levels involved in this question. The first, as Job implies with 'the Lord has given; the Lord has taken away', is that this is the will of God. On another level, science can often identify the immediate causes of the problem, usually that God works through Constant and Universal laws. Then on the personal level, we may ask, 'Why is God putting me in this position?' The answer seems to be that we start off as insignificant specks of star dust, and God is calling us to rise above that and become agents of divine Providence.- to shine, radiate, or reflect the transforming light the world needs. In asking 'Why?', we are like babies asking, 'Why do I need to be toilet trained? To have to learn A,B,C, and 1,2,3?' To become agents in tune with God, we need to become pliable, and pray, 'O Lord, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, The courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other'.

Robert Liddy | 29 January 2016  

This article, with the comments it has inspired, is truly memorable, possibly the most important things I have ever read.

Sheelah Egan | 29 January 2016  

Dear Gillian, Many thanks for your insightful reflection. While many parts of the world have plunged into chaos and darkness, unsung heroes like Simon Lewis have lighted their small candles and made this world a better place to live. As Leonard Cohen sang in his 'immortal' Anthem: "Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in."

Toan Nguyen | 29 January 2016  

People who care for, advocate for and encourage those who are downtrodden, discriminated against, suffering the torments and capricious nature of life in all its vagaries are those who give hope to the rest of us - who offer models of behaviour and possibilities of activism for good. Thanks, Gillian!

Jim KABLE | 29 January 2016  

My simple answer as to why there is suffering is because we have free will, and this appears to be an integral part of nature's 'sub atomic uncertainty principle' right through to why there is chance cancerous mutations. This happens to be a part and parcel of our existence. Freedom, 'a gift of God' intrinsically does and must have a down side. If in a hypothetic existence of non freedom, automatism would be the outcome. Freedom seems not possible without its downside.

John Whitehead | 04 February 2016  

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