Suffering as a Dissonant Chord

All problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony.
– Sri Aurobindo (from “The Life Divine”)
Ingenious notes plugged into a motived score,
These million discords dot the harmonious theme 
Of the evolution’s huge orchestral dance.
– Sri Aurobindo (from “Savitri”)
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Suffering is a dissonant chord.

What is a dissonant chord? It is a musical chord (two or more notes played simultaneously) that sounds disharmonious and ugly to the ear. It also has the quality of momentarily giving the impression of being out of tune with the rest of the music.

Its role, which is an inherent part of its “nature,” is to give a special kind of harmony to the whole through its dissonant character, i.e., in the end to give a consonant effect. Through the tension it creates, the subsequent resolution becomes concordant and pleasant. Its final effect is to be a harmonious part of the whole through its momentarily seemingly unharmonious quality.

So in what sense then is a dissonant chord “dissonant”? How can it be “out of tune” when it is an indispensable part of the whole structure, the complete composition?

It is dissonant only in the sense of being temporarily such when examined by someone who concentrates only on the chord itself, or on the small part of the composition in which it appears, as if it were an independent entity. But the small part is not independent of the whole. A dissonant chord has no function outside the context in which it is placed within a composition. A chord by itself can sound dissonant in isolation, but musical notes are meaningless and functionless when standing alone. Music is a sequence of notes. It unravels as a development in time; its whole structure depends on the harmonious relation of its parts.

This musical entity may shed light on the problem of suffering: If suffering is a dissonant chord, then only the whole can place suffering in its correct perspective. Our constant preoccupation with our sufferings – with what momentarily seems dissonant and therefore bad, harmful, out of place – is then similar to that of a musically uninitiated person’s obsession with examining the dissonant of chords of Wagner and Stravinsky in order to figure out why the complete compositions are great despite the fact that they include so many dissonances. The uninitiated may ask: “Why does The Rite of Spring sound so good, why is it such a great piece of music when there are so many ugly notes (and rhythms) in it?” It soon becomes obvious to him that such a quest is pointless, for something cannot be defined as ugly or dissonant when it ends up being an integral part of a grander totality that is beautiful and consonant. He realizes that the apparent ugliness of a dissonant chord is an illusion, for its life lasts only for a small interval and its discordant effect is canceled as soon as it is followed by other notes (some of which may, paradoxically, be other dissonant chords) with which it merges in a resultant “harmonious flow.”

Similarly, if we stop searching for an immediate and direct explanation for our sufferings and instead try to find the specific role they play within the whole composition of our life and all Life, then we will begin to discover that they have a role to play that is not immediately perceptible. By viewing suffering as a dissonant chord, we open ourselves to the possibility that suffering is not an evil stranger intruding in our life but a potential friend who may reveal his true identity at some later stage.

On one level, we have those instances when an ordeal leads to a final favorable outcome. For example, we are fired from our job and feel horrible, only to be offered a much better and more fulfilling job a month later. Or we suffer because a friend or our spouse has betrayed us and left us, only to later discover that he or she has subsequently committed more heinous acts from which we were spared.

On a second level, we have the suffering inherent in our development and growth on our way to adulthood – which is something to which we can all immediately relate. We may have been punished in school or at home for our misdemeanors, or suffered because of friction with our friends in school. At the time, we may have felt oppressed by our teachers and parents, or depressed by the unfair treatment of our classmates. But later in life, we recognize the benefit of what our teachers did and the value of our struggles to communicate with our friends. Similarly, during late adolescence in many tribal societies, even today, men have to go through rites of passage to become “men”;  in some industrial societies, young men must serve in the military as part of their duty to the fatherland. These hardships, seemingly unnecessary at the time, are valued later in life for their contribution to the strengthening of character and for their having prepared men to leave their family and create their own life. Most importantly, as adults we all accept various forms of what may be termed “the conscious suffering of development.” Personal growth has always been associated with some form of struggle and even suffering. Effort, exertion, stress, and pain are irrevocably connected with our development. The athlete, the artist, the craftsman, the scientist – all have to struggle to master their respective fields, and the greater the “trials and tribulations,” the greater usually the mastery achieved.

On a third level, the resolution of the dissonant chord of suffering may also come about even in cases of extreme suffering. In these instances, what usually resolves the suffering is a new understanding that transforms the way we see things. An example of one such event involving a quite common occurrence in life is told by Victor Frankl in his magnum opus Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl recites the story of another doctor who entered his office asking for help because of severe depression due to the fact that he had lost his beloved wife two years earlier. Frankl asked him what would have happened if he had instead died before his wife, to which the doctor replied that for his wife this would have been even more terrible to bear. “You see, doctor,” said Frankl, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” It seems that after this remark, a big weight was lifted from the doctor’s suffering soul, for as Frankl so eloquently says in what is a recurrent theme in his book, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” By helping the doctor see his state from a new vantage point – that of the totality of his life, rather than the narrow perspective of his current personal suffering – the doctor understood that what seemed meaningless and hence discordant in isolation turned out to have had a deeper meaning and harmony in his life as a whole: his suffering was the suffering his wife was being spared! Unless they die simultaneously in an accident, this is the fate of every elderly couple who outlives his or her spouse. When viewed from Frankl’s perspective, every dissonant chord of suffering of every elderly person who has lost a beloved can be similarly resolved via a new understanding that harmonizes the suffering with the totality of one’s life that includes the life (and death) of both oneself and one’s spouse.

But what happens when the suffering is not only extreme, but there is also no evidence or any possibility for anything in the universe bringing about any future resolution? How can any good possibly ever come out of, say, being imprisoned for years in a concentration camp, or losing one’s hearing? Suddenly, we realize that such disparate types of suffering cannot be resolved by some later event in physical space, nor by a subsequent reaping of the fruit of personal growth, nor by any new understanding – the three possibilities we have already examined. In other words, what happens when Nature does not provide either the resolution itself or any hints that such a resolution exists? Well, if we stick to the analogy of suffering as being a dissonant chord, we may see this lack of any provided resolution as a challenge to create the resolution ourselves! Rather than passively waiting for Life itself to provide the harmonizing notes, we create them. The dissonant chord of suffering can then be considered as “a given chord” that Life asks us to subsequently harmonize with our life through our own actions. So our suffering ceases to be a one-of-a-kind static entity and becomes a dynamic potentiality whose final true nature and meaning in our life and Life in general is dependent upon us. By struggling to incorporate the dissonant chord of suffering into the totality of our life, in effect we become the composers of a new life in which this chord ceases to be disharmonious.

Therefore, when you are imprisoned in a concentration camp, as Victor Frankl was, you may choose to transmute the suffering into something beautiful, consonant, harmonious – just as Frankl did when he allowed his suffering to become the inspiration for creating his philosophy of meaning, for founding a new school of psychotherapy called Logotherapy, and for writing one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. And when you lose your hearing, you may think of Beethoven, who, while he started to lose his hearing in his early twenties, eventually triumphed over it by using it as the oil that fired his inspiration and creativity. The music Beethoven could not hear with his ears became the music he struggled to hear in his mind and the music which would in great part end up expressing this very struggle: His Fifth Symphony is the literal harmonization in musical language itself of his life’s dissonant chord of suffering, his deafness – the symphony’s four opening notes that are repeated throughout the first movement are said to express the relentless poundings of a merciless Fate. Therefore, in the unique case of Beethoven, we have a suffering that led to a double harmony: He harmonized his life’s suffering by subsequent work (action) that transcended it, and this selfsame work simultaneously expressed the struggle towards this transcendence in “the harmonies” of musical language! The greatest dissonant chord in Beethoven’s life, his extreme affliction, led to his transforming himself, his life, and all Life (in this case the music of mankind) into something beautiful and even glorious, and thereby becoming one of the greatest men in history.

But of course, the pinnacle of all life-examples of the dissonant chord of suffering becoming a harmonious part of a new life that is molded through personal action is the West’s most important figure, Jesus Christ, whose Passion became the condition for his Glory. The final “composition” of Jesus’s exemplary and inspiring life lies in the extreme dissonance of an unspeakable Passion being simultaneously harmonized by an extreme act of love and forgiveness for his tormentors – an act that gave the suffering a higher meaning. It is the resultant harmonious sequence and blending of the two opposing chords that led to the supreme consummation and glory of Jesus’s life. Contemporary exemplary figures who have managed to convert extreme adversity and suffering into a great life by virtue of their adversity include Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.

Viewing even extreme suffering as a dissonant chord rather than as some anomaly in an impersonal universe helps us discover ways to transmute it into a newly created personal universe in which the discord is resolved by and through our own actions. Just as we transform the matter and energy of the cosmos by channeling them into the myriad forms of everything we create as humanity, we may transform our sufferings, the dissonant chords of our life, into something consonant, thereby creating a unique composition of a creative life that has never before appeared in the universe.

By transposing “the problem of suffering” into “a problem of harmony,” it ceases to be a meaningless cruelty, a dark mystery, an inexplicable intrusion upon the Creation. The problem of suffering then ends up becoming none other than the way we harmonize suffering with the rest of our life. Suffering then may be viewed as simply one element of the overall harmony of the cosmos – albeit having initially seemed out of place and discordant. Taking the analogy of the dissonant chord to its culmination, we need only make one further step that will allow us to accept the non-negative function of suffering in our life, and in some sense even “explain it away”:

We can consider suffering to be not only an indispensable part of the Becoming’s own process, but a constituent element of the Becoming’s overall harmonious composition.

© 2019 Nicos Hadjicostis