Meister Eckart Explains Suffering & Evil
One of my biggest doubts over the years about the existence of a higher self or a greater good in the universe is the existence of horrible suffering. How can god exist or life be meant to be perfect if children die in violence or sickness? What more proof do we need that there is no fundamental force of good and love in the world? How can there be so much pestilence and war and genocide and slavery and so on if life is as good and miraculous as the ancient masters tell us? How come bad things happen to good people? What kind of god would allow a Hitler, a Pol Pot, a King Leopold, a Stalin to exist?
Meister Eckart von Hochheim (c. 1260 – c. 1328) grappled with this question as well. And in the following passage I thought he summed it up very nicely:
"A good man ought to have trust and faith and certainty in God, and know him to be so good that it would be impossible to him and to his goodness and to his love to suffer any sorrow or harm to come to a man, unless he should wish to take a greater harm away from him, or to give him greater consolation on earth, or, using the harm as instrument and material, to make something better with it, so that God's glory becomes more widely and more deeply revealed." -- Meister Eckart, The Book of Divine Consolation
So in summary, Meister Eckart offers three solutions to my question:
1) If we perceive that something that is happening is "bad," this is the universe's way of saving us from something even worse. This is a counter factual but is a comforting way to think about it. If one has enough faith in the order and perfection and love of the universe, this can be a very powerful way to deal with the woes of the world.
2) Meister Eckart claims there is no absolute evil in our world. ("There is no affliction and harm that is without consolation, nor is there any harm that is nothing but harm... He always makes and gives some comfort and which man can help himself; for the saints and the pagan philosophers also say that God and nature do not permit unmixed evil or suffering to exist."--The Book of Divine Consolation) Everything has a pair and we can choose to focus on one or the other. (This is similar to the Asian idea of non duality.) So we have the choice to put our awareness on the things or experiences that are causing us to suffer, or we can shift our focus to the other things or experiences in our life that are wonderful. We have the power to put our awareness where we choose, so why not choose the good stuff?
He gives us an example:
"A man has a hundred marks [i.e. a lot of money in the Germany of the 1200s], of which he loses forty and retains sixty. If he is going to think day and night about the forty he has lost, he will never stop feeling aggrieved and sorry for himself. How could anyone find consolation and forget his sorrow who keeps coming back to his loss and his grief, thinking about what it has done to him and what he has become through it, staring at affliction while affliction stars back at him, moaning over it while it moans in reply, as they sit there, affliction and he, going into each other's eyes? But if he would just turn his mind to the sixty marks he still has, and turn his back on the forty that are lost, and think of what the sixty are to him, and if he would look at them face-to-face and chat with them, he would certainly find consolation. What exists and what is good can console me; but what is nonexistent and is not good, what is not mine and what I have lost--that must of necessity bring desolation and sorrow and affliction." Meister Eckart, The Book of Divine Consolation
3) Apparently, perhaps like the hot fire of a forge, suffering is used by the universe to lead us to truth. If we are happy and comfortable, why would we put in all the effort and time to investigate the nature of reality and discover the inherent perfection of life? It takes work and (apparent) sacrifice so suffering is the universe showing us we are moving in the wrong direction. If we keep ignoring the pain and believing that we can create our own fate, the suffering level will keep rising until we either change direction (change our job, our relationships, how we spend our time, what we are eating, etc.) or the suffering will snuff us out.