As the author of a book on Job, I am occasionally expected to know something about suffering. Unfortunately, I don’t know very much. And I especially don’t know things like, “why do people have to suffer?” or “what does suffering mean?” In fact, the only important thing that I know about suffering is that it really, really sucks. And when it happens to me or to people I love, I want it to stop happening as soon as possible.
This accounts for my basic rule for taking medicine: “never take anything unless something hurts.” When I can relieve physical or psychological anguish by taking a pill, I thank God for creating a universe that has pills in it. People who say stuff like, “headaches are not caused by a deficiency of aspirin” are missing the point. I don’t care why my head hurts; I care how I can make it stop.
When it comes to emotional and existential suffering, the remedies have to be different, but the philosophy behind the treatment is the same: the goal is not to turn my suffering into beauty, truth, or poetry. The goal is to turn my suffering into not suffering.
This has actually been an issue for me for much of the past three months, as, along with the rest of the world, I have adapted to the new normal of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Yes, I have been trapped in my house, but, thankfully, it is a house with a lot of books. And because I persist in the obstinate belief that books matter, I have found myself spending most of my free time reading my “Belly-of-the-Whale” books — books that function as comfort food for my soul.
I do not expect books to help me understand misery and pain. These are not things that I even want to understand; I just want them to go away. And throughout my long life as a book lover, I have found a few books that do a remarkable job of accelerating the path through emotional pain. Though I did not plan out a “suffering syllabus” or anything on this trip through the whale, I noticed this morning that six books had managed to accumulate on my nightstand over the past few months. These six books are a pretty good representation of books that I would want in my backpack if I were ever unfortunate enough to be swallowed by a large aquatic creature.
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
For most of my adult life, the Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius have been the first thing that I pull from the shelf when a tragedy hits. Marcus Aurelius was (along with the slave Epictetus) one of the two great stoic philosophers of Antiquity. But Marcus’s stoicism has little to do with the anemic emotional equanimity that goes under the same name today. For Marcus, philosophy meant genuinely understanding the constraints under which one lives, and vigorously adapting to those constraints to live the best life possible. His stoicism requires us to cut through appearances and pretentions and understand what is really necessary for a person to live a good life. And as we come to understand this, a large number of things that seem important turn out to be pretty trivial. The message that I take from Marcus is, “decide what really matters, focus on it, and watch everything else melt into air.”
Tragic Sense of Life, by Miguel de Unamuno
I was a college sophomore when I encountered Unamuno’s novella “San Manuel Bueno, Martir” in a Spanish literature class. This story of a Catholic priest who has lost his faith in God, but who conceals this fact from his parishioners because he sees all of the practical good that religion can do, was the most though-provoking thing I have ever read. I did not realize at the time that it would soon become the guiding script of my early religious life.
Unamuno’s long essay, Tragic Sense of Life is, in my opinion, the greatest work of religious existentialism ever written. It is not in any sense an atheistic work. It affirms God and belief, but it does so in terms that make grand existential truth claims irrelevant. We believe in God, Unamuno asserts, because we need to believe in Him. Our deep fear of mortality (the basis of the tragic sense) requires that we find a way to believe in immortality — and from this flows God, faith, hope, charity, goodness, and, ultimately, a good life. Great eternal truth claims are not exactly irrelevant, but they are also not very directly related to the reasons that faith exists.
Whenever I think I that I am about to have what we now call a “faith crisis,” I re-read Unamuno and try to understand the paradox at the heart of his work: that the question, “What is true?” is far, far less important to living a good life than the question, “How can I live a good life?”
In Memorium, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I used to hate Tennyson’s great eulogy to his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, because it seemed to go on forever. Hallam died in 1833, and Tennyson spent the next seventeen years grieving, writing, and trying to make sense of his death before publishing the poem in 1850. The first time I read it (in a Victorian Literature class), I commented, frequently, that it never ends.
But the fact is that it does end. There is a last verse. And this fact makes all of the difference. It does not take me 17 years to read In Memorium. On a good day, it takes about three hours, during which time I can read through the entire cycle of the great poet’s grief. And when I come to the end, and realize that his suffering ended, I can imagine my own suffering ending too. And once I convince myself that there will be an end to the pain, the suffering itself is deprived of its most jagged edge: the hope-destroying belief that things are never going to get better.
Gravity and Grace, by Simone Weil / Life and Holiness, by Thomas Merton
Most of my favorite writers are my favorite writers because they say the sorts of things that I have always thought but never know how to express. Simone Weil and Thomas Merton, on the other hand, are among my favorite writers because they say things I have never thought before and cannot even imagine when I am not reading their work.
Reading Simone Weil is, for me, a continual dance with revelation. The perspective that she offers in Gravity and Grace — a posthumous collection of her journal entries, drafts, and marginalia — is that of a mind completely focused on God and entirely convinced that God can only be accessed by paying meaningful attention to other people. From these premises, she produces insight upon insight that screams to me, “you are not living life as you should because you think that the wrong things are important.”
Merton has much the same effect, though his insights are a little bit more in the realm of what I consider conceivable. A convert to Catholicism who became a Trappist Monk, Merton spent his life thinking about what actually matters and purging everything else. The life that he arrives at centers on devotion to God, kindness to other people, and an imperative to work always for a more peaceful and compassionate society.
While reading the work of both Simone Weil and Thomas Merton, it is virtually impossible for me to think that any problem I have is important.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltsar Gracián
This is a strange choice of books to read while suffering, but I believe it is an imperative one. Gracián was a seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit whose specialty was living life in the world. His Art of Worldy Wisdom (Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia ) is often compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s Art of War — a manual of personal and professional realpolitik designed to help people succeed in business, personal relationships, Church service, and community affairs. Unlike Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, though, Baltasar was a spiritual person who believed that goodness was part of living a good life.
I have found that The Art of Worldly Wisdom is the perfect book to read when I am down in the dumps precisely because its main purpose is to tell me how to get out of the dumps — not by managing my pain or understanding my suffering, but by fixing the things that are broken in my professional life and my relationships so that my life sucks considerably less than it did.
And there you have it, a random, unscientific, but life-tested list of books to read in the belly of the whale — united, if at all, by their insistence that the most important thing that we do on earth is to figure out what “a good life” really means so we can stop wallowing in whale guts and live one.