Much of suffering is an impenetrable mystery. But to a limited degree, we are able to understand suffering if we can come to understand what love is.

Pope John Paul II, in Salvifici Doloris, writes, “Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering.[1] He then quotes the Old Testament to illustrate the spectrum of human suffering: the danger of death; the death of one’s children; the lack of offspring; nostalgia for the homeland; the mockery and scorn of others; loneliness and abandonment; the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer; and the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbors.

“Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation, or distortion of good,” John Paul II explains. “We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he ought—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.”[2]

Much of suffering is an impenetrable mystery. From the standpoint of science, my daughter Tanya got breast cancer because of random mutations, and this chance event has no rational meaning. From the viewpoint of Christianity, why a beneficent Creator allows cancer and the resultant suffering to exist is an impenetrable mystery.

But to a limited degree, we are able to understand suffering. At the opening of The Iliad, Achilles is angered because Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, has taken for himself Briseis, a beautiful and clever woman captured by Achilles. Since Achilles thinks he is the greatest warrior amongst the Greeks, he feels dishonored by Agamemnon, and retires to his ship and refuses to join in the battle against the Trojans. Blinded by his anger, Achilles allows this best friend, Patroclus, to use his armor and to do battle against the Trojans. Patroclus, the mildest Greek, dons Achilles’ armor, becomes warlike, inspires terror, and brutally kills numerous enemies of the Greeks, until he is cut down by Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior. Achilles goes berserk—enters into battle, kills every Trojan in sight, including Hector, and in his rage attacks a river, the height of madness.

From Achilles’ immense suffering over the death of best friend, a new person emerges. He sees that he has been exactly like other men—foolish, caught up in winning prizes, striving for eternal glory, blind to the reality of love. The new Achilles is compassionate and even smiles at the foibles of his fellow warriors.[3] Homer shows us in The Iliad that suffering can destroy a person’s ego, correct his misunderstanding of himself, and join him in a profound way to others. Suffering can move a person from a narrow self-love to an expansive love of others.

Homer’s insight that we are not determined by fate or culture but can free ourselves from our ill-formed habits and faulty thinking, often through suffering, so as to connect ourselves to others is an essential part of the Western understanding of the human person. For example, James Baldwin, an American, Black writer, citing contemporary experience, agrees with Homer: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive.” And the following words of Baldwin could have been spoken by Achilles, “Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”[4]

The Buddha holds, and he may be right, that the love of another always leads to suffering. In the Visākhā Sutta, the Enlightened One tells a grandmother grieving for her recently dead grandson that “those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred sufferings. Those who have ninety dear ones have ninety sufferings…. Those who have one dear one have one suffering. Those who have no dear ones have no sufferings. They are free from sorrow, free from stain, free from lamentation, I tell you.”[5]

If we follow the Buddha, as the writer Peter Matthiessen does, we would seek to alleviate our suffering regardless of others. Unhinged by the death of his second wife, Matthiessen goes on a two-month trek in Nepal, in search of the Lama of Shey who resides at the ancient monastery on Crystal Mountain. He hopes the Lama will show him a way of overcoming the suffering caused by death.

Matthiessen leaves behind in Sagaponack, New York, his eight-year-old son, Alex, with the family who has taken over his house while he is gone. Alex, in a short letter to his father, writes, “How are you. I am fine. I was very sad, I was even crying, because I didn’t write to you. But I feel a lot better since I’m writing to you now. The cat and the dog are great, but I’m going to be sad when they die. School is doing pretty well. I hope you can make it back for Thanksgiving.”[6]

Like his father, Alex is brooding about death. The young boy is worried his two pets may die, and then he will be left alone without a mother and with a father absent in Nepal. Matthiessen’s pursuit to alleviate his suffering causes his son to suffer acutely by himself.

Despite what the Buddha preaches, we are always bound to others through love, the love of parents, siblings, spouses, offspring, other relatives, friends, teachers, and even neighbors and colleagues at work, although these loves vary in intensity and duration.

We English speakers use the word “love” to describe our relationship to people, pets, sports, food, and pretty much everything we encounter in this world. In Koine Greek, love is divided into four kinds, storgē, philía, erōs, and agápē.[7] Storgē, often called familial love, is a natural affection that arises from the familiarity of persons, such as two women who daily sit next to each other on a commuter bus. The most intense form of storgē is that of a parent for an offspring. Storgē, however, is so broad that it even refers to the relationship between pets and their owners.

Philía is usually translated as friendship, although the con­notations of the Greek word are wider, and can even indicate the relationship between a buyer and a seller in the marketplace. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that we love what is good, pleasurable, or useful about another person, and thus there are three kinds of friendship.[8]

When the motive of friendship is usefulness, we do not feel affection for another as such but seek to fulfill the desire for some material good through them. These friendships are not always morally reprehensible. Many friendships of utility, for instance, are founded on the exchange of favors. These relations are common among neighbors and acquaintances and include such everyday associations as carpools and food co-ops. In the workplace, where utility generally reigns, many people, because of ambition, wish to receive affection from superiors and use flattery, pretending to be a friend in an inferior position. In the vernacular, ass-kissing is a common way to advance a career, because most men and women love flattery, for they wish to be loved rather than to love.

Friendship based on usefulness is subject to complaints and rapid dissolution. The sharing of money, power, and honor invariably leads to disputes. The desire for more is insatiable and the feeling of being treated unfairly is seldom absent. Aristotle, in his realistic manner, observed over 2,300 years ago, “Most people wish to be recipients of good deeds, but avoid performing them, because they are unprofitable.”[9] Some things in human life never change.

Friendships based on pleasure are not that different from friendships of utility. We love witty people not for what they are but for the pleasure they give us. Children call one another friends because of the pleasure they have when playing together; yet, such childhood friendships can advance human growth and development. My grandson Yasu, when he was four years old, told me he had “lots of friends.” He played more intensely and more imaginatively when one or two of his friends were present. I watched one of his friends imitate Yasu jumping from a stool to the floor. Soon the two friends developed a game, in which the two boys took turns standing on one leg on the stool, shouting something about pirates, and then jumping to the floor. In their play, Yasu and his friend developed social skills, physical dexterity, and imagination.

In the third kind of friendship, the one based on the good, a common life is shared. Whatever makes life desirable is pursued together. Some friends engage in sports together, others perform music, yet others pursue social justice. What friends love most in life is what joins them together; their mutual love enhances their love of the third thing that binds them together. Such friends feel pleasure and pain from the same things, and understand and judge the same things in the same way—in a sense, they are one soul, and such unity of souls, in itself, is pleasurable.

In the truest, most long-lasting friendship, a friend acts for the good of his friend for the friend’s sake, as if his friend were another self. In this highest form of friendship, we love our friends in the same way we love ourselves. Aristotle defines the highest form of friendship as the love that wishes for another the “things which we believe to be good, for his sake but not for our own, and procuring them for him as far as lies in our power.”[10]

Erōs is an intense desire to be joined to another person, to beauty, to truth, or to any good outside of oneself. In essence, erōs is the natural desire for full existence that rests on self-love. In Modernity, erōs is commonly limited to sexual desire, where lovers strive to gain an intimate knowledge of everything that pertains to the beloved, so as to penetrate the other’s soul. Lovers seek to possess each other perfectly, by entering into the heart of the other. Having the same desires, lovers grieve and rejoice over the same things. Unlike philía, where friends of the good gaze at a third thing outside of themselves, lovers under the power of erōs gaze at each other. At times, lovers wish to be united into one, a union that would destroy one or both. Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium claims that if the god Hephaestus came to a pair of lovers and offered to weld them together, no lovers would refuse to be merged into an utter oneness.[11]

In the New Testament, the Greek word erōs does not occur once, while agápē, used infrequently in ancient Greek, occurs 116 times, and stands for a new understanding of love. In the King James Version of the Bible, agápē is translated as charity, a word that now means to most people giving handouts to the homeless or contributing to United Way. In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, agápē is translated as love, an ambiguous word in English that can mean sexual love, affection for another, or even a strong like, say for a particular sport or food.

In the Christian tradition, agápē means God’s selfless love for human persons, a love that cannot be earned and that excludes no one. Such love gives and expects nothing in return. In an attempt to capture this sense of love, agápē is sometimes inadequately translated as “unconditional love.” Since no English translation accurately renders how agápē is used in the New Testament, probably the best recourse is for the reader to stop, ignore the proper Greek, which only a minority of us know, and try substituting agápē and agápēd for “love” and “loved.” For example,

John 13:34: A new commandment I give to you, that you love [agápē] one another; even as I have loved [agápēd] you, that you also love [agápē] one another.

Despite the butchering of the Greek, this substitution shows that Jesus is calling upon us to practice a new and distinct love, to love the way God does, to love our neighbors and even ourselves without desiring a reward, without wanting something in return.

Another, more lengthy rendering of John 13:34 is:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another [without desiring a reward]; even as I have loved you [without desiring a reward], that you also love one another [in the same way].

I never acceded to Siddhartha Gautama’s contention that the problem of human life is suffering. For me, suffering was part of living, not a pleasant part, but one I accepted as reality. My life was driven by erōs, by the natural desire for full existence, for deep encounters with truth and beauty. Despite my best intentions, I cannot keep from concluding that what separates the Buddha and Jesus are opposed orientations toward human life. For the Buddha, the core of human life was suffering, for Jesus love; arguably, Jesus is correct. We hate the decrepitude of old age because we love the beauty and vigor of youth; we hate sickness because we love health; we hate death because we love life. From this perspective, what prompted Siddhartha Gautama’s Great Going Forth that led to his enlightenment was the suffering caused by the impermanence of love.

Perhaps, the most mysterious and complicated action in the universe is love. Consider one of the simplest aspects of love, my other grandson, Kaz, an eight-year-old beginning violin student. Even as a young child, he loved music and the sound of the violin. To learn to play the violin well, Kaz must suffer, first the physical pain of repeatedly pressing the strings and later the frustration of playing wrong notes. If Kaz bears his suffering and learns to play the violin well, he will eventually discover the joy of losing his self in the music; he will become the music. The loss of self will teach Kaz that the music is everything, not monetary rewards or praises from others.

We are often divided in our loves, especially of other persons. We wish our siblings, spouses, offspring, and friends every good thing, and at the same time we love them for reward, perhaps our emotional well-being, improved social status, or simply pleasure. The hard lesson to learn in life is that the love of another person for reward always leads to suffering. No person can fulfill longing for everlasting, untainted love, only God can. “You have made us for yourself, [O Lord,] and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine rightly observed.[12]

Part of the human condition is that we begin life with an extraordinarily narrow self-love. Each one of us starts off life as an infant, with the world no larger than our mother’s arms and breasts. Ideally, our mother’s unconditional love teaches us that we are wonderful, just because we are. Unconditional love prompts us to say to ourselves, “It’s good to be alive; it’s good to be surrounded by such good things.” Erōs, the natural desire for full existence, causes us to join ourselves to other persons, to truth, and to beauty.

As we travel through life our loves invariably become misdirected, at times even desiring what is harmful. Disappointment with love causes us to close in upon ourselves, to hate others, and to despair. Yet, we stagger on. Most of us hope to be loved well, rather than to love others well. This is not to deny that a love between two persons can become so distorted, so hateful, so miserable that the relationship is irreparable and must be abandoned.

Ideally, our infant self-love with its tiny world should give way to erōs that enlarges our world and eventually erōs should give way to agápē, an egoless love that includes all existence. But we are viatores, traveling through this world, stumbling, getting up, and moving on, never reaching our final destination in this life.

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[1] John Paul II, Salvifici DolorisItalics in the original.

[2] Ibid. Italics in the original.

[3] The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951), Bk. 23, line 555.

[4] James Baldwin, quoted by Jane Howard, “Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,” Life magazine, 54, No. 21 (24 May 1963), p. 89.

[5] Visākhā Sutta: Visākhā, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2012. Italics added.

[6] Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 37.

[7] For a detailed discussion, see C.S. Lewis, Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960).

[8] For a detailed discussion of the three kinds of friendship, see Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bks. VIII and IX.

[9] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), Bk. VIII, line 1163b25.

[10] Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk. II, Ch. 4, line 1381a.

[11] Plato, Symposium, trans. Michael Joyce, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 192e.

[12] Augustine, Confessions, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image, 1960), I, 1.

The featured image is “Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus” (between 1760 and 1763) by Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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