One of my favorite quotes is Edith Hamilton's translation of some lines from Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy:
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
I think this is profoundly true, but of course it raises a question. Why must we so often suffer in order to learn? What is it that makes suffering necessary?
An answer is suggested in Martin Lings' worthwhile book, Shakespeare's Window into the Soul (which, in its long publishing history since 1966, has also appeared under the titles Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Art, The Secret of Shakespeare, and The Sacred Art of Shakespeare). Lings was an erudite British scholar specializing in religion and spirituality. In his book on Shakespeare he explores the mystical elements of the playwright's work, finding in the mature tragedies a symbolic reenactment of man's redemption from his imperfections (characterized in the Christian tradition as Original Sin).
He makes his case most clearly with regard to Measure for Measure. Lings writes:
At the beginning of the play Angelo appears to be by certain standards almost perfect, but as yet he is merely a human fragment....
But by the beginning of the last scene ... Angelo was no longer merely a human fragment: his soul was a chaos of warring virtue and vice, with vice momentarily in the ascendant, but it was at least a complete soul; and it is because the fallen soul in quest of perfection has first of all to be made complete by the addition of faults, which are only subsequently purified and transformed into virtues, that Mariana says: "They say best men are moulded out of faults."
This is a theme that Lings expands on at some length. His basic point is that, in the mystical tradition, it is required to confront the darker aspects of oneself - what Jung called the "shadow." Only by facing and transcending these elements of darkness, and then integrating them into one's whole personality, can a person be spiritually perfected.
Angelo, the proud moralist of Measure for Measure, must come face to face with his own immoralities - his lust, deceitfulness, and pride -- in order to finally overcome these vices and become a whole person, "moulded out of faults."
Now the descent into Hell for the discovery of the soul's worst possibilities is only necessary because these possibilities are an integral part of the psychic substance and need to be recovered, purified, and reintegrated, for in order to be perfect the soul must be complete.... The lost and perverted elements have first to be found and then redeemed, and ... the interval between finding and redemption is likely to be fraught with danger.
The soul cannot be made perfect until it is complete. In order to reverse the process of the Fall by which part of man's soul came under the domination of the devil, it is necessary first of all to regain consciousness of the lost psychic elements that lie in dormant or semidormant perversion in the nethermost depths of the soul. Thus it is that in some traditional stories the descent into Hell is represented by a journey into the depths of the earth in search of hidden treasure: the lost psychic elements are symbolized by precious stones that have been stolen and hidden by diabolically cunning dwarfs. The second part of the spiritual path is concerned with the winning back of the lost jewels, that is, the freeing of the rediscovered psychic substance from the devil's domination....
What is traditionally known as "the descent into Hell" is termed so because through it the lower possibilities of the soul are revealed.... Initiation, followed up by the devotional and ascetic practices that are implicit in it, opens the door to contact with the perfecting and unifying power of the Spirit, whose presence demands that the psychic substance shall once again become a single whole. The more or less scattered elements of this substance are thus compelled to come together; and some of them come in anger, from dark and remote hiding-places, with the infernal powers still attached to them. From this point of view it is truer to say that Hell rises than that the mystic descends; and the result of this rising is a battle between "mighty opposites," with the soul as battleground....
At the outset of the play the perverted psychic elements are more or less dormant and remote from the center of consciousness. They must first of all be woken and then redeemed, for they cannot be purified in their sleep; and it is when they wake in a state of raging perversion that there is always the risk that they will overpower the whole soul. This is what happens with Angelo ...
The "descent into Hell," then, is a necessary but risky procedure - necessary in order to activate the latent qualities of the "shadow," but risky because these traits, once awakened, may take over the personality and trap it in a net of negative influences.
Getting back to the Aeschylus quotation, we can see that "suffering" - through which, "by the awful grace of God," we learn what we need to learn - is just another term for the "descent into Hell." We suffer in order to exhume and reanimate the neglected or suppressed parts of ourselves that must be reintegrated into our total personality in order for spiritual growth to take place.
Thus, "he who learns must suffer" - because the integration of the psyche cannot take place otherwise.
This leaves one more question: How exactly do we manage the reintegration? How do we learn by suffering?
Here I think it is useful to recall the old adage, "The wheel turns." The idea is that everything in this life is temporary. A person may be powerful today and powerless tomorrow - rich today and poor tomorrow - happy today and sad tomorrow. In this world of flux, this "sensual world" (as Buddhists call it), nothing is permanent but change.
Some of the sayings of Jesus reflect this truth, especially his multiple variations on the theme that the last shall be first. (A page of such variations is here; the list includes the famous Beatitudes, which promise that those who are in a low condition today will rise tomorrow. While this may be, in part, a promise of ultimate divine redemption, it is also a simple acknowledgment that throughout the course of life the wheel keeps on turning.)
I think that the negative, "shadow" character traits that come to fullest life when we are suffering can be understood and overcome by keeping in mind that "the wheel turns." If we feel that things are rotten and hopeless, we can remember that the wheel turns, and that things will be better down the line. If we feel envious of people who seem to be doing better than we are, we can remember that the wheel turns, and that the people we envy will not always be on top. If we feel a lust for power, we can remember that the wheel turns, and that people who wield power often end up on the receiving end of someone else's power. ("He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.")
To bear in mind the turning wheel and the ceaseless fluctuations of life and fortune that it represents is to know a certain kind of calming and healing wisdom. And from this perspective it is possible (though not always easy) to master our baser feelings and accept them, tamed, as part of ourselves.
The steps in this account of spiritual progress, then, would be:
First, the advent of suffering and the arousal of the negative, "shadow" thoughts and feelings that suffering excites.
Second, full awareness of these thoughts and feelings, and even a partial surrender to them in order that they be felt completely.
Third, the adoption of a wider perspective - "the wheel turns" - in which the present troubles are seen as temporary and tolerable, and the "shadow" emotions are seen as mistaken, grounded in ignorance of the true nature of life. (In effect, the negative emotions are attempts to grab and hold on to things like power, success, and wealth, when in the flux of the sensual world it is impossible to hold on.)
If we go through this proves, we may with luck emerge at the end of it like Prince Hamlet of Act V, who can say with sublime assurance:
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what isn't to leave betimes? Let be.