Uncertainty abounds, enveloping life in muddled obscurity. People, circumstances and even our physical bodies undermine our intentions with capricious and unpredictable irregularities. It’s no wonder that we cherish definitive experiences that render absolute judgments. These often present themselves as disappointments, unforeseen ruptures that inflexibly intrude upon our lives. Only in death, says Emerson, do we collide with anything truly incontrovertible: “We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.” However terrifying the prospect, death’s inevitability gratifies our longing for certainty. We find our footing in its shadow.
Minor defeats approximate death’s final blow, and we welcome the sting of lesser failures that reveal the boundaries of our personal potency. Denuded and humiliated, we recognize the full scope of our reliance upon something other and greater. Whether fate, destiny or God, there is peace in surrendering oneself to forces more durable than our own. The 19th century theologian Schleiermacher wrote, “The feeling of absolute dependence, accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God.” Our dependence is nowhere felt more convincingly than in defeat, and God is nowhere felt more real than in our resulting despondency.
Our sense that the world might have gone according to our wishes but hasn’t alerts us to an ideal standard of life nowhere instantiated in experience. Suffering supplies the greatest justification for a metaphysical interpretation of the universe by attuning us to our frustrated expectation of joy. We feel our circumstances to be unfair and appeal to a tribunal of judges expressly forbidden by a materialistic worldview. While we know our expectation is indefensible, we remain convinced that this bleak life falls short of an ideal existence—the life we were meant to lead. Try as we might to remain tethered to the mundane, hope bleeds through to eternity. We renounce life, and in doing so are drawn into the infinite.
Defeat consoles even as it mortifies. Nothing is more astonishing than discovering how indifferent the physical universe is to our wellbeing. Abstractly we know life to be ruthless, but every concrete reminder jars us free of our complacent faith in a cosmic plan bent on securing our personal happiness. Disappointment makes life wretched but also intelligible—in suffering I am de-centered, forced out onto the margins of the universe where I can survey the true sources of gravity imposing an imperfect harmony on a chaotic world. I see myself for what I am: infinitesimally trivial and disposable. My sorrows do not add much to the total suffering of the world, nor am I alone or special in experiencing disappointment. With renewed perspective I can cast my lot with the multitudes, find identity in community.
The personal cost of suffering is not terribly important. But as a mechanism for inaugurating a search for truth, suffering is vital. Defeat produces disappointment, but only in disappointment do we desire an explanation for life’s mistreatment. Disappointment provokes wonder at our fallen state, and in wonder we begin to lead an examined life.