“Yet even in these nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
My youngest son is doing very well today. Two weeks ago while we were on vacation he was struck by a car. We are very blessed that the only enduring bodily injury he sustained was a broken leg.
I think that what I will most remember is the look on his face in the minutes after it happened. And the look on his mother’s face.
The whole experience was one that a parent dreads. Many parents have endured similar, or dramatically worse things. It makes one think on the broader issue of suffering, and particularly of the suffering of children.
Most everyone must deal at some point with the reality of a loved one’s suffering, and the dramatic feeling of one’s helplessness in doing something about it. This can happen in a unique way for parents and their children.
How does a child deal with suffering? And how do parents and loved ones help a child to do so? How do parents themselves deal with it?
Such questions, along with the reality of any suffering, call for careful reflection.
It has puzzled me how the great ancient philosophers seem to have very little to say about suffering–or in any case suffering that is not the result of one’s own bad choices. At risk of over-simplifying I think that this much is true: men like Aristotle simply took it for granted. Many aspects of human life are subject to the vicissitudes of fortune, and so humans will always suffer in this world.
What is particularly remarkable to me, and worthy of special note, is that the reality of suffering did not shake their fundamental confidence in two things. First, the cosmos is wonderfully designed, and the fundamental order in it is profoundly beneficent. And second, to the extent that one has good character, to that extent one can thrive and have true happiness in any and all circumstances.
But I must not sugar-coat this viewpoint. As far as I can tell, Aristotle’s view of suffering focused on how the nobility of virtue can shine through it in a special way. And while he surely would have observed that suffering can have the effect of strengthening the character of a person, I see no indication that he saw suffering as part of a specific plan for the well-being of human persons. Including children.
How we understand suffering, and even more, how we choose to endure it or not, might be the most significant and telling of human dramas. It reveals, perhaps more than anything else, our fundamental convictions about reality, and the ultimate meaning of human life. It places us at the very edge of what human reason can understand. And it can call for—perhaps most of all in the suffering of children—a faith that transcends the light of reason and the natural powers of the human soul.
At risk of sounding cavalier, there is one more thing that especially strikes me. There are others that know this from experience much better than I do. Suffering—again, perhaps especially the suffering of children—when entered into together by all those touched by it, can unite people in personal bonds that are simply incomparable. Never to be broken.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
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