What is going on in that “Socrates Cafe© “on the second floor of the library every third Sunday afternoon? Since people seem curious, take last Sunday.
People wrote down questions and voted on which to discuss. Th questions were:
What is consciousness; are animals conscious?
Can animals be people?
What is wisdom?
What is death?
and Why does Suffering Exist, which was the winner.
The conversation moves all around the table, with me as facilitator, calling on people when a turn opens up and interjecting my own comments here and there. Here’s how it went:
The word “why” appears in the question – this suggests that there a reason for pain?
Existentialists don’t think so – to them, it’s all random happenstance.
How about evolution? You learn what to avoid if you feel pain, so you survive to reproduce. But what if you can tolerate more pain than other people: isn’t that an evolutionary advantage too? On the one hand, you need to know what to avoid. On the other hand, Stoic endurance might have some genetic usefulness if it is passed on.
Is pain physical- of the body- or can it be emotional, or both? When you are in emotional pain does it take the form of bodily sensations (stomach aches, headaches?) What emotions are engendered by physical pain?
How about people who are perpetually consumed by their victimhood, even when the emotional or physical trauma occurred way back in their lives?
Can pain be transcended by thinking and talking about it? What role does conscious acceptance that suffering is part of life play, given that so many people think that life is supposed to be easy? How about talk therapy for emotional pain?
Do religious systems “rationalize” pain? How about Buddhism, with its belief that pain is a given if we exist, and Christianity with its teaching that suffering is redemptive? Is “rationalizing” in the sense of explaining pain and suffering as part of an overall “why” useful? Does it lessen pain to give it this kind of meaning? Does experiencing pain within a system of meaning mitigate it?
How about the question “How Could a Good God Let There Be So Much Pain in the World?” A Judeo-Christian answer is that life in the material world consists of random happenings and that God so values our decision-making capacities and wouldn’t want to govern our fates as if we were puppets. God grieves for our bad decisions and delights in our good ones. A Buddhist answer might be that pain is the way the world goes but we can control our responses to it through meditation and compassion for each other.
Victor Frankl wrote that he found meaning during the holocaust by thinking about what it would be like outside the concentration camp if he survived for a future after it, and by taking day to day actions helping other inmates. His take suggests that “hopelessness” is what makes pain unbearable and that hope for the future, plus present-time compassion for his fellow prisoners, is what got him through.