Letter 34: Brief Interviews – Interview #46

Dear Dave,

I must admit that the fact my last three posts have been non-Brief-Interviews-related has not been entirely coincidental.  I wanted to write a brief reflection on the anniversary on your passing, and I found a few other short pieces online that merited response.   But to be completely honest, Interview #46 has been kicking my butt for the last several weeks.  I first read it – and have since reread it half a dozen times – about a month ago, but still can’t fully wrap my brain around it.

This Interview has probably been the one with the most personal significance, not because I have faced some dehumanizing or demoralizing tragedy, but because of my own philosophical and even theological quest to understand the meaning and purpose of human suffering.  Having endured nearly a year of chronic migraines,[1] I have spent many a drive home from work trying to understand what suffering means.  I am a little further along in arriving at some answers, but still have a long ways to go.

And then I came across Interview #46, which I think has only brought up more questions as I have read and reread and tried to fully grasp its meaning.

While I know I don’t have all the answers yet, here is what I do know to be true:

We live in an extremely messed up world in which people dehumanize and demoralize and violate others in the most unimaginable ways. There are the obvious examples like the Holocaust or other large-scale atrocities that have taken and damaged the lives of millions of people.  But there are also the unmentioned, never-spoken-of personal violations that occur as the rest of us go about our day.  These untold stories, like the hypothetical violations Interviewee #46 brings up,[2] bring lifetimes of silent suffering to their victims.  There seems to be no limit to what humans are capable of doing to each other.

We seem to have this innate need to try to understand or create meaning out of even the worst circumstances. We know that it is the capacity for evil within each of us that can cause these horrible tragedies, but we seem to have an inborn desire to find purpose in our suffering no matter how degrading or dehumanizing that suffering may be.  The major religions of the world all seem to have their own explanations for our suffering, whether it be karma or part of some divine plan.  Those who share my Christian beliefs might say that suffering is sometimes part of God’s plans and purposes for us which are meant to increase our faith and grow our character.  Even the non-religious ask the question.  An existentialist might deny some inherent meaning or purpose, but would say that we have the capacity to create meaning out of even the worst circumstances.

Tragedies and suffering, no matter how difficult or dehumanizing, can have a positive outcome.  As Interviewee #46 points out, having gone through the worst imaginable tragedy or suffering a person can come out of the situation with a deeper knowledge of him/herself.  One can know that he/she has endured his/her worst nightmare and survived.  As #46 says, this can give that person a sense of strength and resolve that he/she never knew he/she had.  Anything else that may come this person’s way will not defeat him/her.  As the saying goes, “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Those who hold a religious worldview may see the tragedy as an opportunity to grow in their faith.  It may not be their own strength they rely on to get them through the suffering; it may be their faith and the God of their faith that gets them through.  It may also be the community of other believers that gives them additional strength to endure the trials and tribulations of this life.  They emerge from the tragedy both stronger as a person and stronger in their faith.

It seems inevitable that we will all face tragedy and suffering in this life, and it seems possible that those tragedies and sufferings may bring about a positive outcome in the form of deeper self-knowledge and/or a deeper religious faith.  But there are still some questions brought up through this Interview that I still can’t quite come to terms with.

First, does this self-knowledge that Interviewee #46 describes only come through truly deep and personal suffering?  Must a person endure the horrors of genocide or the violations of a gang rape to fully understand the strength and fortitude that one is capable of displaying?  Can a person attain this self-knowledge vicariously or through less extreme suffering?

Second, and most importantly, does the possibility of a positive outcome equal some sort of predetermined plan or purpose for the suffering?  Whether it is God or fate, is there some force bringing this suffering into our lives under the pretenses that it will benefit us in the long run?  If there is, does that mean – on the grand scale of things – that the ends justify the means?

Maybe I am reading too much into this.  Maybe I am letting my personal circumstances color – or even taint – my reading of the short story.  Or perhaps these are questions that need to be asked, even if the answers elude us.

[1] By no means anywhere near the level of suffering described in this Interview, I am almost embarrassed to bring it up here.  But in my sheltered bubble of a life, it is probably the worst suffering I have personally endured and has forced me to grapple with these questions.[back]

[2] I’m not so sure his gang rape example is purely a hypothetical.  Lines like “everyone gets hurt and violated and broken sometimes,” or “trust me, I know, I’ve been there,” or “what if I said I don’t just believe it I know it” seem to reveal that his “for instance” is a lot more than that.  I would conjecture that he himself was a victim of some horrible act of violence, perhaps the one he describes in the interview.[back]


2 thoughts on “Letter 34: Brief Interviews – Interview #46

  1. Nice musings. You might also note that there’s a passing mention of this theme in Octet, where DFW discusses an abandoned story-let involving a pharmacologist who invents a drug that can genuinely relieve psychological stress. In the story, the drug’s beneficiaries are so grateful for being relieved of their burdens that they seek out the pharmacologist to thank him, with the result that the guy is kind of hounded and his life becomes unbearable, and goes into seclusion. DFW muses about whether the story might hint at a rule of the universe that every instance of pleasure or pain has a counterpart. So he was interested in the question from several angles.

  2. I’m still working my wat through the Octet, so I haven’t gotten to the part you mention. But in reflecting back what I have read of BI thus far, I can now see this recurring theme. The restroom host who bears such indignity in the name of taking care of his family is one example that comes to mind.
    I’ll continue to keep an eye out for this theme as I read.

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