On October 11, 2017, Joshua and Caitlan Boyle and their three children were rescued by the Pakistani military after being held prisoner for five years by the Haqqani network. Their harrowing story is now filtering through the media, in fragments here and there, as the family begins their recovery in Canada. I’ve been following it closely, checking for updates almost every day. Their story has hooked me – not because I know them personally, but because I see in them a darkened mirror of my own family. Their three children are almost exactly the same ages as my own; our oldest sons were both born in December 2012, and we each have a two year-old and an infant born this past summer. But their children were born in captivity; until this week, their middle child had never seen daylight.
I look at my four year-old, his large head and earnest cheeks, building an elaborate Lego set at the dining table. He survives almost entirely on peanut butter sandwiches, but he’s nonetheless healthy, well-nourished, intellectually stimulated. I imagine him having lived his entire life thus far in an underground prison, where the bogeymen are real, where childhood artifacts like playgrounds and bikes and toys and cake are distant myths. I imagine giving birth in that prison, breastfeeding a newborn in the damp darkness. I look at my two year-old, with her unfettered exuberance; she’s constantly stomping around, singing, always happy and too damn loud. What would she be like, how would she be broken, if she’d never seen the sun?
I think about these things, and I feel an abyss open up inside me, one that feels, when I look right at it, more powerful than hope, or love, or God. They’ve been rescued, I remind myself, but my mind keeps pulling back to the before, to the moments of unknowing, when their hope was yet unrealized. How did they live, how did they hope, in the belly of that abyss?
These imaginings carried me inward, toward a more primal story, toward a deep-down archetype of which the Boyles’ ordeal is a real-life expression. This is the story of the hero who descends into profound suffering before emerging as a changed man. This is the story of Jonah (incidentally, the name of the Boyles’ eldest child) in the monstrous fish; this is the story of Odysseus in the underworld; this is the story that has its perfect expression in the Christian drama of salvation – the many other versions, I think, are echoes that call us toward this. The story we humans love to tell, over and over, is one of suffering that culminates in rebirth. Is this idea of purposeful suffering simply a therapeutic fiction? Or is it actually, deeply, true?
* * *
There is much about the Boyles’ ordeal that is still unknown, and may always be. It is entirely their choice what to share with curious onlookers like me. But one question quickly surfaced in the headlines after their rescue: why did they continue having children in captivity?
Let’s leave aside the irony that a sex-obsessed society would expect a married couple to practice perfect abstinence for five years while confined in a small space together with literally nothing to do. Joshua Boyle has confirmed that they made a conscious decision to continue having children. They always wanted to have a large family, he explained, and they weren’t getting any younger. Such glib reproductive optimism is mystifying to many, even maddening. There’s a clear undertone of bewildered disapproval in these headlines, one that reveals how thoroughly we, as a society, are seduced by a particular lie: that it is better not to exist than to suffer.
This perspective is expressed more emphatically in an essay currently making the rounds on social media. In it, philosophy professor David Benatar makes the case for a moral imperative against procreation. I first came across this article in my Facebook feed; there was something surreal about the scene: an essay advocating the suicide of the human species earning the trivial, cartoonish approval of a flurry of Facebook hearts. (Even if this perspective were true, how could one possibly “love” it?)
The essay is paired with an image of a deserted playground smothered in fog – an image that, I think, perfectly evokes the emotional content of the argument, which is lifeless, lightless, and bitterly bleak. In short, Benatar argues in favor of anti-natalism, the belief that “existence is always a serious harm.” He briefly makes a misanthropic case for anti-natalism, arguing against procreation on the grounds of human destructiveness, which I’ll bracket and leave for another time. Most of his essay is spent making the philanthropic case for anti-natalism – that most people are better off never having been born, because of the pervasiveness of human suffering. Clearly, his stance is extreme, but it resonates, I think, with a growing pessimism toward procreation in our culture, a pessimism more commonly expressed in sentiments such as, “I can’t imagine bringing children into a world like this.” Similar sentiments are at work in those headlines that wonder why the Boyles would choose to reproduce in circumstances of acute suffering.
Benatar is clearly working within philosophical assumptions that are alien to me, as a Catholic. In his world, there is no God or inherent meaning in the universe. There is no moral order to which human beings are accountable, and certainly no afterlife. Any meaning that exists is conjured by humans and dies with them. His argument rests on an affirmation of the pleasure principle: life is only worthwhile if one’s experiences of pleasure outweigh experiences of pain. Thus, human life has only instrumental value, not inherent value. And because suffering is so pervasive in the world, prospective parents should face the real possibility that their children will end up as losers in the balancing of pleasure and pain, and should therefore refrain from creating them.
There are obvious weaknesses in Benatar’s argument. For one, his pleasure principle privileges what is quick, easy, and complete. He categorizes as suffering not just extreme cases of illness and torment, but almost anything requiring effort or “striving.” He dismisses the pleasures of acquiring knowledge, for example, on the grounds that one can never know everything, and is thus forever dissatisfied. And even a long human lifespan of 90 years, he reasons, still falls far short of the immortal ideal, as it is much closer to 10 years than 10,000.
This leads to what I see as his most glaring contradiction: he asserts simultaneously that life is good and that life is terrible. First, he argues that life is not worth living because death, a grievous harm, is certain. This is not particularly persuasive, as the logic seems to flow like this: because you will eventually be done eating a piece of cake, you should never eat a piece of cake. Moreover, if death is considered harmful, this implies that one would much prefer to continue living. To be grieved at death assumes that life is good. This undermines his fundamental claim. To return to the cake example, he seems to be saying: you should never eat cake, because while it is delicious, you will eventually have to face the loss of having already eaten the cake, and the time you spend not eating the cake greatly outstrips the time spent eating the cake. Oh, and also, cake almost certainly promises to be really terrible, so you should never risk eating it in the first place.
Yet, while Benatar’s arguments has its problems, what haunts me is its cold logic, because it is possible to project one’s vision into a world where this argument rings true. A world where one looks at the suffering person, the person expressing his agony in a wish to never have been born, and instead of a protest – “No! You are of infinite value” – the response is a shrug: “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
* * *
The mystery and meaning of human suffering continually calls for our profound attention. There is no quick-and-dirty Christian “answer” to this mystery, not as such. Christianity itself, in its entirety, is a response to the problem of human suffering. Over the next three weeks, I’m going to look more closely at this response, using Benatar’s essay as a helpful antithesis to a Catholic understanding. One thing Benatar takes for granted, unquestioningly, is that suffering is always meaningless. There is no room in his philosophy for a connection between suffering and wisdom, or between suffering and love. Catholicism is almost a complete inversion of Benatar’s anti-natalism, in which death conquers life, evil overwhelms goodness, despair subsumes hope, and selfishness supplants self-giving love. In this view, the extinction of the human species is a certainty, so why not usher it on?
But that is not the Christian understanding of reality, of which the Boyles’ captivity is a microcosm. For now, we suffer. We languish in the belly of the whale. We’ve heard stories of this strange entity called the Sun, a burning ball so bright it will scald your eyeballs if you look at it, a heavenly furnace that lights up the world with its fire. The reality of such a thing is all but impossible to believe in the midst of constant darkness. Yet, it is true. The Boyle children have now seen it. And someday, so will we.
This is the first in a three-part series on the meaning of suffering.
Part 2: Wisdom and the Necessity of Suffering, will be published on November 6.
Part 3: Love and the Gift of Suffering, will be published on November 13.