Almost 2500 years ago a young man named Aeschylus left home with his beloved brother to defend Athens against the invading Persians. The defense was successful, but Aeschylus’ brother was killed.
How did Aeschylus deal with this personal tragedy and the horrors of war? He began writing tragic plays. Today he’s considered the father of Greek tragedy.
He thought a great deal about the role of suffering as is evidenced by this powerful line:
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
This might sound like a downer at first. But look again. He’s telling us that pain and suffering, though we would never seek them, can still play a positive role in our lives.
Yes, we can avoid much suffering through common sense, and we should. But when suffering comes, we need not think that life has gone off the rails, or that the gods are against us, or that suffering means we are somehow disqualified.
It just means we’re human. And it may mean we’re a little wiser.
Aeschylus reminds us that suffering is part of life in this world, part of being human. We need not be embarrassed. We need not give up. We need not become cynical or hard.
First, as someone has said, your problems won’t kill you, but the way you think about them might. Aeschylus gives us a better way to think about problems and suffering.
Second, joy does not cancel tragedy, and tragedy does not cancel joy. Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. We can respond whole-heartedly to both.
We don’t have to turn away from those who are suffering because we share a common human condition. But we also don’t have to let suffering blind us to the joy and beauty and goodness of life. In fact, tragedy can intensify our experience of joy.
We can laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. Tragedy and joy are the yin and yang of the soul. As Blake wrote:
“Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.”