- Suffering is the price of being alive . . . [variously attributed to Judy Collins and others]
- Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, And shares the nature of infinity . . . [William Wordsworth]
- Birth is suffering, aging is suffering . . . [Guatama Siddhartha (Buddha)]
- . . . although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. [Helen Keller]
We have identified our aim, to seek, promote and realize the well-being of living beings. Yet suffering persists, and characterizes much of the human condition. Our understanding of it is an important weapon in our struggle against it.
As justice is what we seek, suffering is what we wish to avoid. Because it is an inescapable feature of life, we must acknowledge it. In the bitter cold of winter, in the Northern hemisphere, we descend, by choice, into a week of darkness.
Stories about human suffering:
- Susan Gubar, Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012): a noted feminist describes her battle against disease, including her public advocacy, and her approach to life and death with a deadly disease.
- Joel Brinkley, Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land (PublicAffaris, 2011). “A journalist finds that poverty, trauma and corruption persist in Cambodia.”
- John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014): Williams spun unhappiness into dramatic gold.
- Fenton Johnson, Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays (Sarabande Books, 2017): “. . . Johnson shows us so many varieties of human pain as well as glimmers of hope”
Biographies of Billie Holiday:
- David Siqueiros, Women of Chilpancino (1960)
- Arshile Gorky, Agony (1947)
- Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937)
- David Alfaro Siquieros, Echoes of a Scream (1937)
- Salvador Dali, The Signal of Anguish (1932-36)
- Paul Cézanne, The Magdalen, Or Sorrow (c. 1868-69)
- Rembrandt van Rijn, The Virgin of Sorrow (1661)
- Giovanni Bellini, Allegory of Inconstancy (Fortune) (1490-1500)
- Michelangelo Buonarotti, Pieta (1499)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- From the time when addiction and illness began to ravage her person and her voice, Billie Holiday sang with a sharp edge of pathos perhaps unmatched by any other jazz singer.
- Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande presents a tragic story of lovers parted; they die and life’s woes pass to the next generation (performances conducted by Abbado, Boulez and Ansermet).
- Kenneth Fuchs, Falling Canons (seven movements for piano): a cascading realization of a nightmare, the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy “inspired” this work. His Falling Trio uses a piano trio to explore the same idea.
- Karaindrou, Euripides – Medea: Bathed in haunting tones of Middle Eastern instruments and dripping with pathos, Medea retells the ancient Greek tragedy in words and music.
- John Jenkins, consort music for viols: music of exquisite sorrow.
- Irgens-Jensen, Symphony in D Minor (1942) was “inspired” by the composer’s distress over the beginning of World War II.
- Foss, Symphony No. 3, "Symphony of Sorrows" (1991)
- An album entitled “Scatterered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarolon Legacy” presents choral works from Renaissance composers based on the execution of a Dominican friar for heresy in 1498, and the turmoil in and around Italy during the 16th The works are: Josquin, Miserere mei, Deus; Palestrina, Tribularer, si nescirem; Le Jeune, Tristitia obsedit me; Lassus: Infelix ego; Lhéritier, Miserere mei, Domine; Gombert, In re, Domine, speravi; Clemens non Papa, Tristitia obsedit me; Byrd Infelix ego.
- Foss, Song of Anguish (1953)
- Foote, Francesca da Rimini, Op. 24: based on the story of doomed lovers from the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno
- Weinberg, Violin Sonata No. 4, Op. 39; Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 53
- Weinberg, Symphony No. 6, Op. 79 (1963) – on the condition of the Jewish people in Europe in the mid-20th century
- Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122 (1966)
- Puccini, Tosca (1899): everything goes wrong – performances with Callas, Gheorghiu and Marton
- Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 14 (2001-2002) – angst and uncertainty
- Alkan, Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15
- Penderecki, Symphony No. 7, “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”, about the struggles of the Jewish people throughout the ages
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon, Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy
Film and Stage
- Aruitemo, Aruitemo (Still Walking): about a family bound together by “resentment and sorrow” after the heroic death of a young family fifteen years earlier
- Kagemusha: a battle of three Japanese warlords presents suffering as “impersonal, distant, and ghostly”
- Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch), about three people thrown together by chance
- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?: a dance marathon as a metaphor for life as suffering
- Boys Don’t Cry, about Brandon Teena, a/k/a Teena Brandon, whose gender ambiguity haunted his life and led to his death
- I Want to Live!: about a woman on death row
- The War Game, speculating on what life might be like after nuclear warfare
- The Human Condition, a six-part “trilogy” of films, presented through one man’s eyes but exploring the miseries we inflict on each other: 1. No Greater Love; 2. The Road to Eternity); 3. A Soldier’s Prayer)
- Leviathan, about suffering as only Russians can do it these days
- Amos Oz, Scenes from Village Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011): “The characters in Amos Oz’s stories struggle with disappointment; taken together, they reveal a society in trouble.”
- Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012): “Fresh out of prison and despite formidable odds, Alice Bhatti, a Catholic nurse in present-day Pakistan, has wrangled a job at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a cesspit of gangrene and incompetence.”
As I ponder'd in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then I answer'd,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.
- Charles Bukowski, “A Smile To Remember”
- Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”
- Robert Frost, “A Question”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Robert Fulton Tanner”
Books of poetry:
- C.M. Burroughs, Master Suffering: Poems (Tupelo Press, 2021) is “transcendent: revealing anguish, vulnerability, and a guttural beauty. The nucleus of this searing treatise on bereavement and belief, is a younger sister’s death.”
- Andrés Cerpa, The Vault (Alice James Books, 2021): “Andrés Cerpa is our Virgil, offering us a path through the dark realm of loss with fragments of unsent letters, indelible imagery, and exquisite language.”