We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Toward a Pedagogy of Suffering

In an article appearing in the Clinical Law Review, 19, 2 (Spring, 2013) and entitled, "Painful Injustices: Encountering Social Suffering in Clinical Legal Education," Law professor Sarah Buhler proposes a "pedagogy of suffering" aimed at helping clients and lawyers address the sources of social suffering to the end that larger questions of injustice might also be addressed.  In her conclusion, Buhler writes,
It is important for clinical law teachers to be prepared, during class discussions, case rounds, or routine supervisory interactions with students, to critically interrogate dominant discourse about suffering, and to urge students to ask questions about the proper terrain of legal practice. This may require clinicians to push students into examining their own emotional responses, and to help them to develop a critical vocabulary for understanding and contextualizing these experiences. A critical pedagogy of suffering would entail a deliberate challenge to the tendency to suppress or divert emotional responses within the clinical classroom, and to encourage students to understand their own sadness or distress about their clients’ stories as resources for thinking about larger questions of justice and injustice in society.
In the Christian tradition rooted in Judaism, we have from the beginning recognized the instructional value of suffering.  Traditional theology held that God is the source of all suffering, which is intended not so much to punish sin as to offer sinners the opportunity to change their ways.  In more recent times and in many Christian circles, the idea that God purposefully causes suffering in specific instances has lost favor, but we cannot escape the underlying fact that suffering is a part of the world that God has created.  God does not kill innocent children, yet their deaths are somehow encompassed within divine providence.  And suffering still has its value, if it is not so painful that healing cannot take place.

One of the key uses of our set of spiritual practices is to focus our attention on the lessons we can learn from our suffering and that of those around us.  Prayer and meditation, as key examples, are thus not ways to avoid suffering or escape its consequences.  They are the means rather for processing suffering, and as we engage in them we learn that frequently we are complicit in our own suffering.  We are a source of suffering in others.  The suffering itself is simply a physiological, including mental and emotional, phenomenon.  What it can teach us if we are mindful of it is, ultimately, spiritual and vastly important to our well-being.