Baldwin: “People who cannot suffer can never grow up.”

Recently a friend of mine introduced me to James Baldwin (1924-1987), an American author who wrote books, essays, and memoirs on the experience of Blacks in America.

I just finished reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays exploring race relations in the U.S. in the early 1960s. “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality,” he says.

Continuing to reflect here on what case there is for suffering being redemptive without sliding into any justification of (or indifference to) real injustices, Baldwin offers a credible voice.

Here is an excerpt on how suffering can be a school in maturity:

I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry.

These are penetrating insights. Generosity, responsibility, and maturity are all fruits of the unshakable confidence borne of suffering trials nobly.

Life has to cost us something or it is hardly worth anything.

Accordingly, Baldwin says, “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.”

However, he diagnoses, many of us are very much afraid of what life can bring and cling to illusions of false security. These false securities are no guarantee for us of meaning.

This is why, he says provocatively, “the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.”

We can discover who we are only by facing up to what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls, “that dangerous insecurity [that] is so much more human.”

Borne out of much anguish and conveyed with great pathos, Baldwin gives witness to the maturity in self-knowledge that can be achieved through suffering. It is not easy. It is often not even just. But it is real.

“We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is,” he says.

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