Facing Profound Suffering: Part I

I recently saw on Facebook something like, “It’s not the opinions you post, but what you do that matters.” While I think I certainly understand the point, I think such a line misses that words and deeds are often the same. Consider, what are you to do if you want to help others but you have limited resources and come into contact with few people in your day-to-day life? Well, one thing to do is to post your opinion, i.e., write something that may prove useful to others. Is this not doing something? Let us hope so.

Speaking as an American, our culture is expert at eliding the ubiquity of pain, suffering, and death. If you ever have occasion to talk to others about their suffering or the suffering of their friends and family, you will soon discover nearly everyone has a story to tell. But we often (usually?) are unaware of this common thread that runs through all of our lives. It Is much like the parable in which a distraught, grieving mother who has recently lost her child goes to the Buddha for solace. He tells her he’ll help her after she goes around to each household in town and collects a mustard seed from those homes that have not suffered a similar loss. She returns to the Buddha empty handed and wiser.

It is an interesting question as to why we are so unaware of the suffering of others. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, and I imagine that one of them is an assumed impoliteness—it is somehow rude to make others confront your troubles. And indeed no one really likes the consummate complainer. And what I think is a more interesting reason—or is it more a symptom?—are the portrayals of peoples’ lives in movies, TV shows, books, etc. That is, unless it is a part of the plot, we never see characters or protagonists dealing with either acute or chronic physical pain, much less anxiety, depression, or any of the many forms of existential malaise that people commonly experience. Perhaps the assumption is that none of that would be very entertaining. Nevertheless, between people being regularly tightlipped about their own suffering, the suffering of friends and family, and the portrayals of lived life that we use to distract ourselves from our own, suffering seems quite distant. Until it’s not; until it finds our person or that friend or loved one. And then that space of distant suffering is transformed into an abyss of solitude, where we are the only ones to experience such tragedy. But of course that abyss is merely an illusion made solid by our cultural practices.

While much more of course could be said about all of the above, it is really only a kind of prolegomena to what I really want to discuss, namely, how should we respond to our own deep, profound suffering? That is, aside from trying to escape it, how should we respond to it such that we do not fall into despair or even worse some form of nihilism?

Nietzsche writes that man’s problem, “was not suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, ‘why do I suffer?’…The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far—” (Genealogy of Morals, III 28). Lack of such meaning creates a suffocating void, opening the door to what Nietzsche refers to as suicidal nihilism.[1] Similarly, in Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl writes, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice….That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (Man’s Search For Meaning, 117). Nietzsche thought that religions like Christianity gave an answer to this question, namely, that we suffer due to own sinful nature; we are the reason for our own suffering. Christianity, for example, helps us to realize this and thereby gives our suffering meaning, making us think we even deserve it. I am however not interested in this answer, whether Nietzsche is correct, or its soundness.

One of my favorite lines from the author Jim Harrison is, “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” While some may find this insulting, it seems to me that western, but especially American, culture is particularly ridden with nonsense. Few of us are ever weaned from the teat of capitalism and consumerism. Because of this, and much else, I dare say, many of our daily pursuits and activities are indeed nonsense. We lose our cool over the silliest of things, mistaking them for tragedies. We are seldom fully engaged in the present moment; instead, we are planning ahead, wishing we were elsewhere or elsewhen, or simply being absent-minded or distracted—often taking much of our lives for granted. When profound suffering waylays us, we don’t usual know what to do, and all we can think about is not hurting and returning to all that we took for granted. But that’s the thing about being waylaid by profound suffering, by profound illness, by profound loss, etc.—you can’t stop the pain or return to “normal” when you will. So, given all of this, how should we respond? While there are variety of healthy and helpful possibilities, I want to focus just on one. An important approach, I and I know others have found, is to respond to profound suffering by asking, “What does this have to teach me?” This question is important in the face of adversity more generally, but particularly in the face profound acute or chronic suffering, and even deathbed suffering. Please note at this question does not presuppose that our suffering part of some greater plan. That it may be, but the question of pain’s wisdom does not assume that.

This question of pain’s wisdom is extremely difficult, in part I think because it requires us to let go of the instinctive impulse to get away from the pain as quickly as possible. But one reason why this question is so important is that it forces us to begin to change the narrative within which we understand our pain. And this is in a twofold sense. First, it is one way to begin fitting our experience of pain into a narrative of meaning. For example, “The meaning of this pain is wisdom.” Second, while this can lapse all too easily into the desire to get rid of the pain, we must recognize that the narrative context in which we experience our pain affects the pain itself—that is, its quality, intensity, etc. For an interesting discussion of this latter issue, see this article on the “weirdness” of pain.

Asking what does my pain have to teach me, is one way of cashing out the following point from Epictetus:

It is circumstances that show what [people] are. So, when a difficult circumstance befalls you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a tough young [opponent]. ‘For what purpose?,’ he says. That you may become an Olympic victor. But it does not happen without sweat. In my view, no one has a better circumstance than you have, if you are willing to make use of it as an athlete uses a young opponent. Discourses, Book 1, chapter 24.

While a wrestler learns to become a better wrestler by wrestling a skilled opponent, what is it that the person wrestling with pain is to learn? I suspect that much of what one may learn is going to be unique to each person. However we might say some general things about it. Consider the following passage from Nietzsche:

If you, who adhere to this religion [of pity/compassion], have the same attitude toward yourselves that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible stress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together. The Gay Science, 338.

I leave it to the reader to probe more deeply into the ways Nietzsche may be right here. But briefly, how might profound suffering open the door to the possibility of true happiness? This is not an easy question; but I suspect that there is some connection the phenomenon I’ve experienced when a family member has died. That is, much of the nonsense that constitutes our daily lives shines clearly for what it is; and there is suddenly a door into the authentic and significant. And I suspect, too, that the wisdom of great suffering is due in part to a kind of forced “presencing.” That is, when we suffer profoundly and over a long period of time, if we’re to remain sane, we must either engage in profound distraction or in being profoundly present. While distraction can be an important tool—thank you Netflix!—if we take our question seriously, namely, what can I learn from the suffering, we will not engage merely in distraction. On the other hand, our suffering will become truly unbearable if instead of being present to the only thing that exists, namely, the present moment’s experience, we project the present moment’s pain into the coming days, weeks, and months such that we take into the present moment all of that hurt. Is all too easy to lament to oneself, “Damn my existence! So many days ahead of this! I cannot bear it!” But we need not bear it all at once; we only need to “bear” this moment. And we forget, too, with such projections into the future that the course of our moment by moment suffering is not static. Consider, for example, a headache that lasts all day. We complain, “Oh my head has hurt all day,” making it sound as if we experienced a uniform, unchanging sensation of pain the entire day. While that is possible, more often than not the pain has fluctuated in its intensity and quality, sometimes becoming more intense, in some moments pulsing, throbbing with our heartbeat, others a dull ache, and in others being forgotten altogether. So, too, even chronic pain is not uniform and unchanging day in and day out, if we only pay attention.

However, profound suffering is of course a profoundly difficult opponent. And even if in some moments we are able to sincerely face our pain and inquire about its wisdom, in other moments this question may seem impossible—all we can do is despair. And that is okay. Just as when meditating we will catch ourselves distracted, no longer following our breath, the thing to do is not to scold ourselves for failing, but simply to bring our attention again and again back to the breath, so, too, we must return to our question regarding pain’s wisdom again and again. And I suspect that as with much conditioning, as with much habituation, the more often we return to this question, the more often we will be able to return to this question.

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