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She said, "It's not life or death, the labyrinth."
"Um, okay. So what is it?"
"Suffering," she said. "Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That's the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?"
"What's wrong?" I asked. And I felt the absence of her hand on me.
"Nothing's wrong. But there's always suffering, Pudge…Suffering is universal. It's the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about." (52before.9-13)
Even though suffering is universal, it's still pretty painful and terrifying—and the ways in which the characters respond to their pain and suffering are uniquely individual. How does Alaska respond to her suffering, and why might she respond in this way?
No one talked for a minute, and then Takumi asked, "Your dad blamed you?"
"Well, not after that first moment. But yeah. How could he not?" (2before.69-70)
It's not Alaska's mother's death that causes her suffering, but more the guilt and anguish she feels as a result of her role in her mother's death. It's important to note that Alaska's the one saying that her dad blames her, and that she is notoriously unreliable as a personality—which leaves us questioning how much of her suffering is self-inflicted.
The Colonel was screaming. He would inhale, and then scream. Inhale. Scream. Inhale. Scream.
I thought, at first, that it was only yelling. But after a few breaths, I noticed a rhythm. And after a few more, I realized that the Colonel was saying words. He was screaming, "I'm so sorry."
When the news of Alaska's death is announced to the school, both Miles and the Colonel try to expel suffering in different ways. Neither helps. And who, or what, is the Colonel apologizing to or for? There are a ton of interpretations to explore here.
Hank hugged me and said, "At least it was instant. At least there wasn't any pain."
I knew he was only trying to help, but he didn't get it. There was pain. A dull endless pain in my gut that wouldn't go away even when I knelt on the stingingly frozen tile of the bathroom, dry-heaving. (2after.35-36)
Miles continues to try to rid himself of the pain, but he can't. We have to wonder what exactly is causing the pain: the death of Alaska, the sorrow of her death, the responsibility Miles feels about her death, or some strange combination of all three and more?
"Forty-two," he corrected me. "Well. Forty-two there. Forty-two back. Eighty-two miles. No. Eighty-four. Yes. Eighty-four miles in forty-five hours." (4after.11)
Miles suffers alone and with his thoughts; the Colonel decides to walk for hours. How does each way of responding to suffering align with their personalities?
"This was Alaska's question."
With a sigh, he grabbed hold of his chair and lifted himself out of it, then wrote on the blackboard: How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? (8after.8-9)
Alaska's pain and suffering throughout the novel is clear, and to exit her pain she writes in a book margin that she will get out "Straight & fast." What might she have written in her paper for the Old Man about pain and suffering, in a different context and for a different audience?
I lay on my back with my knees hanging over the precipice and screamed. I screamed because the Colonel was a self-satisfied, condescending bastard, and I screamed because he was right, for I did want to believe that I'd had a secret love affair with Alaska. Did she love me? Would she have left Jake for me? Or was it just another impulsive Alaska moment? (20after.17)
The death of a loved one often leaves us with unanswered questions, and part of the suffering that comes with death is the fact that these questions will never be answered. What realizations does Miles have about his suffering at this moment in the novel? Miles suffers because of these uncertainties in addition to his guilt… and he suffers because Alaska wasn't who he wanted her to be.
The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we'd learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did. (51after.3)
Yet again the Old Man's class and lectures provide Miles a way to think about healing from Alaska's death and the guilt he feels about it. Miles starts to think about his desire—for Alaska, for himself—and the idea that everything changes. The question is whether Miles will be able to accept the falling-apart-ness of the world enough to heal.
"I am interested in how you are able to fit the uncontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it." (122after.3)
The Old Man is pretty smart, and this is a good essay for students to write as they struggle to come to terms with their classmate's death and their own suffering. It forces students to consider the idea (introduced by Alaska) that suffering is universal and inescapable, and focuses them on the challenge of how to live or move beyond it.
That which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly, and I will forget, but she will forgive my forgetting, just as I forgive her for forgetting me and the Colonel and everyone but herself and her mom in those last moments she spent as a person. (136after.14)
Miles realizes that forgiveness is his way out of the labyrinth of suffering, and he mourns his realization that Alaska was never able to forgive herself for her role in her mother's death. This is not the same view as the Colonel's take on suffering. Think about how the ways to deal with suffering are presented in the book and which are most in line with your own beliefs.
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