Suffering and Time

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There’s no guarantee that suffering will produce greater empathy and compassion, but suffering creates optimal conditions for these to take root because it arrests time–our experience of time–in a particular way. The very thing that makes suffering feel so interminable is also that which clears the space we need to notice details about the world (including the conditions other people are in) that we wouldn’t have otherwise paid any attention. We move and think more slowly when we are in pain. Of course, the source of our pain is initially all we can concentrate on. Everything fades into the background as all our senses combine to eradicate whatever is causing us intense discomfort.

But suffering is different. Suffering is pain indexed by time. Suffering is the relentlessness of physical or emotional degradation that tears at the innermost caverns of our being. Suffering tries to undo the intricate, focused weavings of time and space that constitute the essence of who we believe ourselves to be and how we believe the world is ordered. Suffering makes it feel precisely as if all of reality has fissured into chaos and disorder. Simone Weil put it this way:

When we strike the head of a nail with a hammer, all the shock received by the head of the nail passes through to the point in its entirety. If the hammer and the head of the nail were infinitely huge, all of this would still happen in the same way. The point of the nail would transmit an infinite shock through the point to that which it is nailed.

Extreme affliction, which is at the same time physical suffering, distress of the soul and social degradation, constitutes the nail. The point is applied to the very center of the soul. The head of the nail is all of necessity spread across the totality of space and time.

Time’s slow crawl in the midst of suffering is what allows us to be singularly attuned to others’ distress, if we can pay attention. The world looks different when we suffer. We move and speak differently. Suffering pulls and stretches our understanding, poking and prodding what we thought we knew to be true, making the possible impossible but also transforming the impossible into the possible. It takes a lot of effort (and often our strength fails us) but within this time displacement we can often find a way to sit with ideas and people in ways that before would have seemed foreclosed to us.

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