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The Pleasure of Suffering

Edouard Henri Avril (1843-1928)

Virgil’s wisdom is still needed today.

“Some day, perhaps, remembering even this will be a pleasure.”

So says the great Aeneas to his men after they have come ashore near Carthage. With many comrades seemingly lost at sea and their own ships severely damaged — and this after so many travails — the surviving Trojans find scant reason for solace, much less pleasure.

Apart from the perspective of divine revelation giving a supernatural perspective on suffering, can there be meaning, even pleasure in suffering? Aeneas’s rightly immortal words (they have even been inscribed over academic buildings) stand as indication that there can be. For if in remembering there can be pleasure, there should also be the possibility of pleasure in the experience itself.

And Virgil is right: there can be pleasure in remembering suffering. We often remember with pride and satisfaction suffering born nobly, whether our own or someone else’s. The expression that hindsight is 20/20 implies that we are usually able to see a situation more clearly once we are removed from its pressures and passions. Given that this applies to suffering, it would be good to know what hindsight about suffering can see more clearly. And then perhaps we can cultivate the ability to see that same truth even while in the midst of suffering.

The context of Aeneas’ great lines in his exhortatory speech is very helpful:

“Friends and companions,

Have we not known hard hours before this?

My men, who have endured still greater dangers,

God will grant us an end to these as well.

You sailed by Scylla’s rage, her booming crags,

You saw the Cyclops’ boulders. Now call back

Your courage, and have done with fear and sorrow.

Some day, perhaps, remembering even this

Will be a pleasure. Through diversities

Of luck, and through so many challenges,

We hold our course for Latium, where the Fates

Hold out a settlement and rest for us.

Troy’s kingdom there shall rise again. Be patient:

Save yourselves for more auspicious days.”

We hold our course for Latium; the very words send a thrill through us. Here is a man that nothing will turn from his divinely inspired course. We see what he has endured, and we marvel. His unswerving dedication is evident to us, and to him. Indeed, how else would even he know his own virtue, except by having endured such suffering? But there is more: Scylla’s rage, Cyclops’ boulders, and countless other adversities have served not only to reveal but also to form and fortify his purpose, his resolve.

Suffering has given Aeneas the opportunity to make the choices that have made him who he is. As now he stands before his men, his identity and stature have been sculpted by his sufferings. Nothing can take that away from him. He knows it, and they know it.

Not that suffering puts us beyond the possibility of failing, of turning back. Sure, another round of suffering could break us. Following the above speech, Virgil writes:

“So ran the speech. Burdened and sick at heart,

He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly

Contained his anguish.”

Though steeped in anguish, Aeneas feigns hope for the sake of strengthening others in their suffering. Even as we marvel yet again, we are aware both that this is precisely what a good man should do, and that many men do not. Some day, perhaps, remembering even this will be a pleasure. The word perhaps is no mere literary device; the drama of human freedom in the face of suffering is real. A battle rages within Aeneas, who beyond victory in suffering gives us, and probably also him, confidence in his ever-growing fidelity.

Suffering connects us to who we are, and who we really want to be.

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