“The world breaks everyone.” As an ambulance driver in the First World War, Lt. Frederic Henry had tended to bodies savaged by machine gun fire and disfigured by artillery. He had witnessed souls shaken by violence, carnage, and loss. And it seemed to him that some who had endured such horrors had become “strong at the broken places.”
Frederic Henry is the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was himself an ambulance driver in that terrible war. So, like many other readers, I take Henry to be a reflection of the author’s own bleak view of things.
In significant ways I agree with Hemingway. This world is a tough place. Nobody gets out unscathed. Suffering is an inescapable feature of living on this planet. And if life is going to have any meaning, we’re going to have to make sense of the pain and the sorrow, the trauma and the heartbreak we experience.
Hemingway and I both acknowledge that suffering will leave some of us as heaps of jagged pieces. Emotionally, spiritually, physically fractured. And like Hemingway I also believe that we can come through suffering as something, as someone, more than we were before our hearts and souls and bodies were rent by our circumstances. We can find meaning in a life battered by suffering. Where I part ways with Hemingway is how he and I find that meaning.
To put it briefly, Hemingway’s stories suggest to us that authenticity makes suffering meaningful. Hemingway labors under a concept of the self that Robert Bellah calls expressive individualism. From the perspective of expressive individualism, to be true to ourselves we must act upon our own inner dreams and passions. We can only be fulfilled when we express that inner self, even if the world sets out to kill us for it. As Hemingway writes, “Those that will not break [the world] kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”
Some people will try to avoid suffering by suppressing their own inner life and succumbing to the world’s demands and expectations. They go along to get along. The result is a kind of existential hollowness. They become empty suits inhabiting lives of quiet desperation. They forfeit their true selves.
On this view, we make suffering meaningful by our own grit and determination. By our insistence on being our true selves even when the world breaks us and seeks to kills us for it. As I’ll show in a moment, this approach leaves us ultimately crushed. Suffering wins. It obliterates meaning. And the reason for that is how Hemingway and many modern thinkers construe the self. So long as the self is our own achievement, we cannot make any enduring sense of suffering.
But before I offer an alternative approach, let me be clear that there are significant advantages to the modern concept of the self that I don’t want to lose. Freedom is crucial to spiritual beings like us. It’s crucial that we retain the agency to make our own life choices, to resist the capricious or unjust demands of our society, and to discard outdated and oppressive expectations based on gender roles, ethnicity, or human sexuality.
However, all of this can be retained when we recognize that the self is not achieved but received. To put it briefly, we are who we are in relationship to God in Christ.
Now for some of my readers, especially my more secular readers, I know that this may be a leap too far. I’ve heard repeatedly something like this: I was completely with you until you brought up that Jesus stuff. This is much bigger than your religion.
I understand. And I only ask that you hear me out for now. So here goes.
First, let’s talk about how expressive individualism fails to make sense of suffering. To boil it down, the modern self embodies Nietzsche’s motto: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Well, yeah, up to a point. And there lies the problem. No matter how great your inner strength might be, the death rate remains one hundred percent. Something will kill you. Whether it’s old age, an enemy’s machine-gun fire, or your toddler’s carelessly discarded Lego pieces, something will take you down. Everybody dies.
It’s the reality of death that got the Stoics’ attention ages ago. They saw that when you face death, you get real about what makes life meaningful. And even before the Stoics got busy writing, the unavoidability of death gave the author of Ecclesiastes a wake-up call. Everybody dies. Rich and poor. Wise and foolish. Virtuous and wicked. Authentic and inauthentic. We all return to the dust. And nobody achieves anything for themselves from six feet under.
This is why the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (1:2) In other words, “Well this is pretty pointless!”
So I’m opting for a different view of the self. We become our true self by receiving it from beyond ourselves. From God in Christ.
There are two ways in which we are who we are in relationship with God. First, we are created in God’s image. That means that we are in this world to love. Second, Jesus came into this world to show us that God is a loving parent who is with us no matter what. Who we are is not what we achieve. Who we are is the love that we receive as an act of pure grace. Gratis. Gift. Period. To be ourselves is to own these two things. I am here to love. I am the beloved. That leads us inevitably to the realization that everybody else is too.
That we are here to love and that we are the beloved changes our perspective on suffering entirely. Once, Jesus was talking about how things would go after his resurrection and before the Second Coming. It sounded pretty bleak. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately… Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:9-11)
Jesus did not say, “Believe in me and you’ll avoid all of this.” Still less did he say, “Be yourself.” Instead, he said, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)
In other words, he acknowledged that all of us will suffer. His followers included. That’s life. But how we navigate that suffering—our own suffering and the suffering of the world—makes the decisive difference. When we love, we take hold of our true selves. We gain our souls. We gain a self defined by our relationship with the eternal source of all life.
And as it turns out, a life defined by divine love is a life that not only heroically endures suffering. It’s a life that passes through and transcends suffering once and for all.
My latest book is Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.