Working with Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman once asked for additional insight into the character that she was to play. What was her motivation? Hitchcock answered her, but the actress didn’t see the question as settled. “I don’t feel like that; I don’t think I can give you that kind of emotion,” she told the director.
“Ingrid,” Hitchcock responded laconically, “Fake it.” On another occasion, as if to explain his approach—if not to debunk Method Acting—the director proffered, “When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.’”
In both instances, the great director made an unexpected move. He stepped back from the art of movie-making and pointed to its underlying realities: acting really is about faking it and even actors do what they do in order to pay their bills.
In their own ways, the religions of the world approach suffering as Hitchcock approached acting: they step back from the obvious and take a deeper look. What’s obvious is that everyone suffers; religion’s deeper look is the search for meaning. Every religion can be understood as a response to the question of suffering, because each of them addresses our fundamental need to make sense of life.
For example, Buddhism teaches humans to search for realities deeper than human suffering, which is itself termed an “illusion.” Other Eastern religions, such as Taoism and Shintoism, see suffering as the result of cosmic imbalances, distortions that can be set right by human action.
The Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are united in several assertions about human suffering. The first would be that God is the author of goodness alone. The second, that suffering enters history through the misuse of human freedom. And finally, that a return to God, who is identified with the fullness of life, is a return to the holiness—the wholeness—from which we fell. In the Western religions, holiness is identified with the healing that human beings seek in life.
The underlying presupposition of all religions is that human life is meaningful and that we can search for this meaning. The Letter to the Hebrews goes deeper still: God isn’t the author of suffering, yet God is accomplishing something through it. God uses suffering as a way of forming whole human beings, or, put another way, holiness comes through suffering. And then, Hebrews gives this injunction: “Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as ‘discipline’” (12: 5-7).
But if Christian revelation gives us a command—endure suffering as a discipline—there must be the possibility of not doing that, of failing to meet the charge. So, there must be something, which we must actively do in order to transform suffering into strength, because, if suffering alone produced strength, no command would be necessary.
So then—what’s the difference between actively enduring suffering, transforming it into a strengthening discipline, and simply being washed about in its waves? We might presume that we transform our suffering, but presumptions can be mistaken. How do we know?
That’s a discernment that can probably only be recognized “in the wake,” in the path that our lives tread in the waves. Here’s a test, an exercise in reflection. As you look back on your life—if it helps, think of it as a movie—identify an event that caused you great suffering. With that sorrow firmly in mind, ask how you’ve changed in response to it. Are you more humble, more reliant upon God, a stronger person who is better able to face adversity? If you can recognize ways in which you’ve grown in the years since then, changes that perhaps never would have occurred without that event, then you have indeed endured. You’ve met the command given in Hebrews; you’ve transformed suffering into strength.
But don’t be presumptuous! Perhaps you’ll discover that you’ve become bitter, frightened of life, less willing to run risks. Suffering may have diminished your humanity rather than increased it. Great wounds don’t go away. We carry them through life, but we decide whether they simply fester or become sutures of strength.
Alfred Hitchcock is also famous for this piece of directorial advice, “Always make the audience suffer.” The longer the audience is terrified, on the edge of its seat, the greater the carthasis when the terror abates. Or, as Hitchcock put it, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
Even in the movies, suffering serves a purpose. The Letter to the Hebrews insists we also shouldn’t suffer without purpose in life. We should understand our suffering, use it to transform ourselves. The question is whether or not the suffering we’ve known is fashioning something strong and noble, something which will exist long after the curtain falls, and the sorrow ends, something we call the eternal soul.
Isaiah 66: 18-21 Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13 Luke 13: 22-30