Suffering is essential for religious enlightenment. This is an ancient concept employed by many religions. Suffering in some sense is good.
In his book The First Circle, abut life in a Russian concentration camp in the Siberian Gulag. Solzhenitsyn said, “to the real philosopher as a consequence difficulties must be viewed as a hidden treasure!” He even goes so far as to assert that “anyone who hasn’t suffered in twenty years shouldn’t be allowed to dabble in philosophy.”
Another reason that Solzhenitsyn finds that suffering is a good is that with it one can achieve perfect freedom. It is sort of like Kris Kristofferson who said, famously, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; freedom ain’t worth nothin but its free.” Or Bob Dylan who said, “when you ain’t got nothing you ain’t got nothing to lose.” That is why Bobynin, one of the camp prisoners says in The First Circle, that he has nothing. Not one thing. He no longer has a wife or child since they were killed. So too with his parents. His belongings fit into a bandana. He has nothing other than his coveralls and underwear without buttons. His jailor needs him, but he doesn’t need his jailor. The jailor took his freedom away, but has no power to give it back, because he has no freedom himself. There is nothing more that the jailor can threaten him with. He tells the jailor to tell his superiors that “for a person you’ve taken everything from is no longer in your power. He’s free all over again.”
One should be grateful for being in a concentration camp! One is lucky to be a prisoner! There is no better place than a prison, to learn the role of good and evil in human life. That is how he learned that a person shouldn’t regard prison solely as a curse, but also as a blessing.” He sees his grief as the raw materials that allow him to illuminate his speculations about history.
My uncle Peter, who survived the Russian Revolution and was appalled deeply by the shallowness of those in western society, where they had been continually coddled would have agreed wholly with this sentiment. I remember one day when I told him I was on my way to a local bar, he said to me, that had I lived through the Revolution I would not waste my time that way. He probably had a point.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn also explored this theme in another book about the concentration camps, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He showed that there is peace that comes to a person who has suffered so much that he no longer has any fear. He said this was a spiritual peace. A deep religious calm. Such a person in a concentration camp can become happy. This is what happened to Shukov at the very end of Solzhenitsyn’s book,. He was happy because he had a good day. Even though he was cold, hungry, beaten, and tired,
“…he was happy. He’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler. The gang hadn’t been chased out to work in the Socialist Community Development. He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He’d felt good making that wall. They hadn’t found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He’d bought some tobacco. And he’d gotten over that sickness.
Nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty three days like this in this sentence, from reveille to lights out.
The three extra ones were because of the leap years…”
Sometimes it feels like that when one has been travelling. Sometimes the suffering is atrocious. Like when I spent 10 hours sitting in Pearson International Airport. Or when I spent 5&1/2 hours cramped in an airplane.
In the camps, it did not take much to make a person with peace and fearlessness happy. An extra bowl of mush might be enough. That takes a person with deep spiritual equanimity to be happy under such circumstances. That was why Shukov felt that he was luckyto be in a concentration camp. “When he painted the number on your cap, it was like a priest anointing your brow.” It was a religious experience to live in a camp. Outsiders were not blessed. They did not have the opportunity to learn from suffering. One should feel sorryfor the unblessed. There is glory in suffering. Solzhenitsyn believed those who do not suffer cannot find God.
A friend of mine took this a step farther, he said, “Religion is suffering.” That could be true in more than one sense. I have said before that travel is travail. Travel and religion are suffering, but to some extent that is a good thing.