Understanding of Suffering
The suffering of man is a very complicated matter that is most likely impossible to understand completely. It is a subject that people have grappled with since the dawn of recorded history. In fact, suffering is evident in every form of art man has created. Suffering is in our paintings, our poetry, our music, our plays, and in anything else that is conceivable. But still, we as a whole still struggle with the idea of suffering. It is my opinion that some individuals may grasp the notion of suffering more than others, but that no one person will ever fully understand suffering in every form. A person may only understand his or her own personal suffering, not suffering as a whole. It is the next step to then say that ?understanding comes through suffering,? which I also believe to be true. It is impossible to fully know what the suffering of a person is like, unless you have experienced the same thing in his own shoes. Two examples of this are Aeschylus?s play Agamemnon and Elie Wiesel?s account of the Holocaust, Night. Throughout both of the works, suffering is a very prevalent theme. The characters in Night and in Agamemnon undergo both psychological and physical suffering. It is very easy to see that their suffering occurs, and one may even commiserate with the characters, but it is impossible to completely understand the suffering that they go through. One may only go so far as to say that they have gone through something similar, and they know what it must have been like, or that they can imagine how it must have been for the characters. This, however, is not complete understanding. Only through personal experience can a person fully understand what his or her suffering is.
In the Agamemnon, suffering is evident in nearly every character. Even before the action of the play begins, terrible things have already occurred that cause much suffering in the ill-fated House of Atreus. We learn that Agamemnon is challenged by the gods to sacrifice his first-born daughter Iphigeneia so that the army may sail to Troy. He states the following:
Heavy indeed my fate if I disobey,
but heavy, too, if I must butcher my child,
with streams of a virgin?s blood beside the altar.
Which of these two things is without evil?
a virgin?s blood as sacrifice to quell the winds.
May it turn out well (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 211-219).
This is obviously a great cause for internal struggle and suffering for Agamemnon. Iphigeneia?s death also greatly affects his wife Clytemnestra. She is very bitter towards him, and she believes that he did not have to sacrifice Iphigeneia. While Agamemnon believes he did so out of necessity, Clytemnestra thinks that it was his own free will that murdered Iphigeneia. She cries out to the chorus that ?He sacrificed his own daughter, dearest pain of my womb, to charm the contrariness of Thracian winds? (Agamemnon, 1415-1417). The loss of her daughter has caused her so much pain and sorrow that she chooses to take revenge upon Agamemnon by murdering him. With three strikes she kills him and spills his blood on the house?s floors (Agamemnon, 1380-1392). This, of course, is only more suffering for Agamemnon, his children, and the people of Argos. A complete understanding of the type of suffering that these characters go through cannot simply be arrived at through the reading. The play only allows the reader to identify the suffering and compare it to your own experiences of pain. This only offers a very narrow understanding of the suffering that the characters actually went through. In the end, you are still left with only a full understanding of your own suffering. It is impossible to be able to place yourself in this type of extreme situation and to determine exactly what the suffering must have been like for the characters. The suffering must actually be experienced in order to fully understand it.
A severe case of suffering takes place in Elie Wiesel?s Night. Wiesel wrote Night as an account of what he saw and what he endured throughout the Holocaust of World War II. The pain and suffering inflicted in the Jewish concentration camps remains as one of the greatest atrocities ever committed against man. Eliezer, the young boy in the story, witnesses this all first hand and tells us of the great suffering that occurred. There are so many gruesome instances of misery given throughout the account that they are far to numerous to give an example of each. I can only begin to crack the surface of what type of anguish the Jews were put through in his account. First of all, the Jews were simply being disposed of as if they were not human beings at all. During his first night in the camps, Eliezer saw perhaps one of the most horrendous things a person could be made to witness. Babies were being thrown into a ditch of fire to be eliminated.
Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning
something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load?little children. Babies! Yes, I
It is simply inconceivable how something like this could happen. Working in camps with little to no food left many prisoners absolutely hopeless. There were no happy times, only suffering and constant fear of death. This left many people doubting whether God himself even existed. As Eliezer thinks back on a hanging he witnessed, he remembers a man asking ?Where is God? Where is He?? (Night, 61). The fact that many men lost all solace in God only magnifies how great their suffering must have been. In fact, oftentimes throughout the story, a person?s desperation turns him into an animal, completely without morals. Instead of commiserating with one another, they turn against each other hoping that their taking advantage of another will help them survive. There is even a time in which a boy beats his own father to death so that he may have a chunk of bread to eat (Night, 96). Never could anyone even claim to understand the suffering that each of these individual Jews went through. A person must have experienced the absolute horrors that occurred during the Holocaust in order to fully understand their suffering. Anyone who claims that they can understand the suffering that these people experienced is quite simply not telling the truth. Perhaps they know that it was absolutely horrible, and that it was far worse than any type of suffering that they have gone through, but they do not fully understand the pain that the Jews experienced. This is an excellent example of how only the person who goes through the suffering fully understands it.
Fortunately, throughout my life I have not encountered the type of suffering that occurs in Agamemnon or the type of suffering that is contained within Night. I have been lucky, and my suffering has only been mild. It is, however, unique to myself. In the winter of 1991 my grandfather became very ill, and he was placed in the hospital for several weeks. Unfortunately, I was only allowed to visit him once because I was still fairly young. We were very close. Because he was so ill, he was only able to squeeze my finger and rub my hand during the visit. Nevertheless, I could see how much joy I had brought him. After I left the room, he struggled to write me a short letter telling me how much he loved me. I read it over and over again when I got home from the hospital. The thought that he could actually die kept me awake the entire night crying. I still have the letter today and it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. About a week later it actually happened. My grandfather died on Christmas Eve. It was only one day before I was going to see him again. I was devastated. I couldn?t believe that he was actually gone. It hurt me so deep inside that I couldn?t even approach the casket at his funeral. People can see that it hurt me badly, they can try to put themselves in my shoes, and they can even remember what it was like when their grandfather died. This, however, does not allow them to fully understand what was going on inside of my head. Only I know my feelings and only I know exactly how his death affected my life. No one person can ever fully understand what kind of suffering I went through at that time. Not Agamemnon, not Clytemnestra, not even Eliezer can completely understand it. Just as I cannot understand their anguish, they cannot understand mine. This was my pain, and only through it do I understand my suffering.
In conclusion, suffering is a part of every man?s life. A person?s torment is unique and is not fully understood by any other person. This type of anguish takes place in Elie Wiesel?s Night and in Aeschylus?s Agamemnon. In these works it is very easy to see that they experience great misery, but it is impossible to understand their suffering. Their suffering can only be identified, and compared to an individual?s own suffering. One must experience suffering in order to fully understand what it was like. It is entirely a personal experience. It is for this reason that understanding comes through suffering.
Wiesel, Elie. Night (1958). Translated by Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam, 1960.