When tragedy strikes and suffering raises its ugly head, a common response that a person may have is the question: “Why?” This question often ranges along such lines as: Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my loved one(s)? Why did this happen to my community, my home, my health, my life? Why does this keep happening to me? And so on.
In seeking to answer such questions, people will often attempt all manner of responses, from the physical to the metaphysical. People will invoke causes of all sorts, or ends of all sorts, whether it be God or man or nature. One thing worth lingering on, however, and prior to any physical or metaphysical explanation, is this phenomenon of asking Why.
What does the question of Why tell us about ourselves, and what does this impulse to ask the question tell us about our suffering? It would seem that within the human psyche is this instinct to ask Why. The question Why, however, is peculiar, for its nature is to cause a person to look beyond the immediate, sensory situation. This is significant because it means that within the human make-up there is a natural instinct to look beyond the immediate environment and to inquire into causes and ends, and it seems that suffering’s peculiarity is especially found in that it drives us to ask Why with existential urgency.
Suffering, of course, is not the only thing to cause us to ask Why, but suffering charges the Why with an energy which mere curiosity or fascination do not typically cause. For example, curiosity and fascination often do not cause a person to ask Why because the enjoyment of some curious or fascinating object is often sufficient to cause the mind to become entrained and so remain with the object rather than seek to inquire into its Why. Suffering, however, apparently because of its unpleasantness, drives the mind to look away from the immediate situation and so look to some other thing, typically a search for a causal explanation or solution. In this way suffering itself is what gives to the Why a decisive and compelling force.
In light of the foregoing, suffering is that which naturally impels a person to meditate and to reflect upon that which transcends one’s immediate environment. Thus suffering uniquely provides to the psyche an opportunity to exercise its innate ability to look into the nature of events and circumstances, whether this be at the level of physical causation or metaphysical causation. The mind intuitively senses that there are deeper causes and meanings to the events of our lives, and so, prior to any answer, the question Why tells us something very meaningful about ourselves.
In conclusion, suffering plays a positive role in the development of wisdom and, it could be said that, without suffering the search for wisdom becomes highly unlikely. Although suffering is unpleasant, its very unpleasantness plays a vital and decisive role in human development, both personally and communally. By providing a compelling energy to the question of Why, the sense of suffering naturally drives our mind to look beyond our immediate, tragic environment so as to look into a larger and more meaningful existence.