Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From Pollyanna to Brutus to Bonhoeffer

As human beings we often face times of suffering. When we do, the temptation is often to deal with our suffering in an unbiblical way. In an article I wrote earlier in the year for the Charles Colson Center, I used the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a springboard to explore two unhealthy approaches to human suffering.

One of these unbiblical approaches is what I call “the Pollyanna method.” In the above article I write that "This describes a person who pretends that everything is happy even when it is not. Such an approach is sometimes referred to as being 'sentimental' and amounts to a functional denial of the reality of evil."

In the same article I went on to talk about an approach on the opposite extreme called Stoicism. Stoicism was a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium [pictured on right] in the early 3rd century BC. The stoics held a pantheistic worldview which, in the words of Tom Wright, “[believed] that everything that exists is somehow either divine or impregnated with the divine.”  But it is the Stoic approach to suffering that concerns us here. For the Stoic, freedom from suffering lay in an emotional detachment from pain. The good life lay in transcending the “passions”, including the emotions caused by human suffering. Since each of us must learn to resolutely submit to our fate, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy observed that Stoicism provided “a psychological fortress which was secure from bad fortune.”
The character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar was a Stoic. Thus, when grief gets the better of Brutus and Shakespeare has him declare to his friend Cassius, “O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs”, Cassius replies, “Of your philosophy you make no use if you give place to accidental evils.”

Cassius, though himself an Epicurean, is reminding Brutus to be a good Stoic and not be affected by difficulties that only happen by chance (‘accidental evils’). Brutus responds as a Stoic, saying: “No man bears sorrow better.” His Stoicism reinforced, when Cassius latter expresses more sorrow than Brutus for the death of his wife, Brutus tells him to be quiet and speak no more of it.

If the Pollyanna approach is characterized by a constant artificial smile, the Stoic approach comes to us in the form of a perpetual stiff upper lip.
In my article 'gratitude and joy in the midst of suffering', I explain how Bonhoeffer teaches us how to navigate between these two escapist extremes towards the Biblical approach to suffering. To find out what that is, you'll have to click here.

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