Thursday, February 3, 2022

Some Thoughts about Suffering

I am not sure why this is happening-- though it might be perfectly obvious-- but serious and not-so-serious psycho thinkers seem to have glommed on to the notion of suffering. Apparently, they are done with meditating about happiness and have concluded that suffering is an essential element of the good life.

In part, of course, the reason is that many people out there are suffering mentally, and our psycho professionals are not exactly up to healing or helping them. So they put out the word that it is good to suffer. Just because you are in pain does not necessarily mean that you have done something wrong. Better yet, just because you are in pain does not mean that your therapist has done something wrong.

It is, as the Greeks would have said, all about pathos. It’s all about inner emotional states; it’s all about passion; it’s all about passivity; it’s all about empathy. And, dare I say, to follow the Greeks, it’s all pathetic. 

The notion seems to be that we all need to have deep feelings, because they validate us and send us scurrying off for meaning. In a culture based on therapy, and especially on ineffective therapy, deep feelings of suffering are like passwords that allow you to join a therapy cult.

The opposite to suffering is activity. Whine all you want about how much pain you are in. Find all the meaning you want in such pain. It might well be telling you to do something to remedy your pain, but suffering does not tell you what to do or how to do it.

So, cultural barometer and generally uninteresting bloviator David Brooks tries to make himself seem profound and even spiritual. So, what he addresses the suffering craze, he seeks something like pastoral counseling, from a December column:

Suffering had such profound and unpredictable effects on those characters, as it does on all of us. Suffering can make people self-centered, loveless, humorless and angry. But we all know cases where suffering didn’t break people but broke them open — made them more caring toward and knowledgeable about the suffering of others. And the old saying that we suffer our way to wisdom is not wrong. We often learn more from the hard times than the happy ones.

Yes, indeed, personal suffering makes people more empathetic toward the suffering of others. Like Bill Clinton, who felt everyone’s pain, after he had caused it.

As for the wisdom gained from suffering, it’s a mirage. You learn from experience, you learn from books, you learn from teachers, you learn from working with other people. Suffering, in and of itself, is a dead end.

Of course, suffering might offer  you a religious experience. About that I have no expertise, so I will leave it to Brooks. He seems to want to tell people who are suffering that there is some value to the suffering. But, since he does not show the way out of the suffering, his words ring hollow.

I asked a pastor what he says to people in pain. One thing he says is, “I want more for you.” I repeat that sentence to you not with any illusion that the world does what I want, but simply as an expression of good will, an acknowledgment of how we all sit with our common fragility, and a recognition that life is unpredictable. It changes. In many pilgrims’ progress, the slough of despond gives way to enchanted ground.

As it happens, studies have shown that regular attendance at religious services is good for you. It’s even better than therapy, as we are told. And it is not a bad thing to know that pain is part of the human condition. And yet, when you emphasize suffering and pathos you are telling people that there is no real way out.

Unless, of course, you want to tell stories about your suffering, the better to regale your audience with nuggets of pseudo-wisdom. Such is the tack taken by one Jordan Peterson, reconstructed Jungian psychologist who has attracted a large audience by feeling them platitudes that appear to be thoughtful. Just between us, they are not. They are vapid, as vapid as David Brooks.

On suffering, here are some salient Peterson quotes:

Life is suffering. Love is the desire to see unnecessary suffering ameliorated.

The purpose of life, as far as I can tell… is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.

Whatever does he mean by meaningful? In general, he means telling stories about our suffering. He might also mean, sharing these stories, which are based on pagan myth and legend, with a large number of people and tricking them into buying your book or subscribing to your social media ramblings.

One understands that Peterson, the Pied Piper of personal responsibility, was recently faced with the fact that his wife had cancer. He got so distraught by the meaning of it all that he got himself addicted to prescription medication. Apparently, it was the most meaningful way he could find to alleviate his suffering. Apparently, all the pagan legends were not providing sufficient meaning. Making sacrifices to the goddess of the underbrush was not doing the trick.

Now, not to be cruel, when your wife falls ill, you incur a responsibility to care for her and to keep your life running. One Susan Sontag, upon being diagnosed with breast cancer, wrote a book called Illness as Metaphor, where she explained that when you get cancer you do not try to figure out what it means, because it does not mean a damned thing. You get the best medical treatment for your condition, action that does not involve storytelling,

On the suffering front, by far the most intelligent ideas come to us from psychologist Paul Bloom. He wrote a book called, Against Empathy, that I considered a wonderful takedown of the current mania over empathy. 

In an interview promoting his new book about suffering, Bloom outlined his ideas:

Suffering is anything that causes you pain, anxiety, or discomfort. The sort of things you would normally avoid. A lot of suffering is, unsurprisingly, bad for you. You should avoid it. You should avoid being assaulted… there’s no bright side to the death of a loved one… there’s no happiness in watching your house burn down… nor is there happiness to be found in getting a horrible disease. Unchosen suffering is awful, but chosen suffering, the sort of suffering we seek-out can be a source of pleasure. Think of activities like going to a horror movie, BDSM, hot baths, saunas… the whole thing. Chosen suffering is part and parcel of a meaningful life. If you don’t have any chosen suffering in your life, you’re probably not living the best life you could.

There’s an argument made by some people that we lack suffering and difficulty in modern times, that life is too easy. People argue we’re not fighting wars in the same way as we did historically, that our social support networks are better, that we’re not desperately struggling to survive or for our kid’s survival. This argument hinges on the notion that we’ve lost something in society… that society was better with more struggle. Studies do show that countries which are poor and in turmoil do- indeed- seem to have residents who claim to have more meaning in their lives than countries which are higher in ‘happiness.’ This does show the potential trade-off between happiness, suffering, and meaning.

Well sometimes we do choose to suffer. We work hard even to the point of overdoing it. We exercise too long and it causes some pain. And yet, do you really think that life is too easy at a time when everyone seems to think that the nation is falling apart before our very eyes. I suspect that this is not what Bloom was thinking, but the incidence of mental illness, caused by social distancing and lockdowns, has spiked during the pandemic. Did it really teach us something?

So, I am happy now to introduce a somewhat different voice, a young woman writer named B. D. McClay. She has written an interesting and compelling piece for Gawker about her personal experience of overcoming suffering by taking psychiatric medication. Hmmm. Apparently, the storytelling was not working for her.

True enough, she remarks, we have made a fetish of psychiatric medication. We prescribe too much of it and rely on it too often. And yet, at times, the pills work. It is interesting to think about how pragmatic she is. And about how unpragmatic the others are.

The truth is that medication is both overprescribed and somewhat stigmatized, with the levels of each fluctuating depending on what sort you need. It is unclear how the pills work, or even if they do. They can come with side effects that are almost as bad or worse than the condition they are meant to help — and seem, anecdotally anyway, to be far more likely to cause side effects the more necessary they are for a person not to spend their life in and out of hospitals. But pills can also work, as mine do for me, with minimal negative effects in my daily life except for very vivid and unpleasant dreams. For other people, they do nothing at all, not even as a placebo.

What does she mean, saying that the pills worked for her:

The fact is I’m one of the group of people where psychiatric meds did exactly what they were supposed to do: promptly and painlessly took a part of my internal life and turned the volume down to where I could think and do other things. It took no work, no self-discovery, no fixing of some inner problem. Instead, like a cartoon character, I discovered that if I just didn’t look down it didn’t matter if I was standing on something or not.

So, we have presented a series of serious thinkers, arguing that suffering can be valuable, that it can teach you something. And yet, the words of a young woman writer ring truer:

Is suffering valuable? That’s the question, and the answer antidepressants give is: no. A viral set of tweets to this effect went around a few weeks ago, for instance: “The core assumption behind SSRI use is the assumption that your suffering is meaningless and you’d be better off without it.… It is a crime to consider suffering as an error to be corrected rather than as a signal to be heeded.” In the end, I side with the pills: Suffering isn’t valuable. It’s just suffering, nothing more and nothing less, sometimes necessary and sometimes not. It is bad to suffer for no reason. It’s better not to suffer. And it’s bad for our character: suffering can make us smaller people, less generous, less kind, more fearful, more angry.

She continues:

Now — like any girl with brown hair and glasses who reads poetry — I am, of course, in love with suffering, too. All I want to do is suffer. I collect the writings of the female saints who inflicted suffering on themselves because we are sympathetic in this way. Except we really aren’t — because the first thing these women will tell anybody like me is that seeking out suffering for its own sake is a dangerous, even sinful game. There’s something comic about saints who chewed plants and spat them out in lieu of eating, scolding others for not feeding themselves, of course, but they’re right. Everything, suffering and self-denial included, is a means and not an end. In themselves, they are nothing. And if taking on suffering is the right thing to do, it’s not because suffering itself is meaningful, but because there’s some other end that is important.

And note her solution:

I stubbornly refused to acknowledge that I could just make my life better by doing things that made it better and not worry so much about if it should, or how it did, or why. I don’t think being happy is the point in life — or being comfortable, for that matter. But misery isn’t the point either.

Why would she stubbornly refuse to see that she could do some things to improve her life? Why, the therapy culture has been telling people that suffering is valuable and they they can overcome it by feeling it deeply and by telling stories about it.

She continues:

All the time I spent running from medication was time I could have spent reading books, writing, making friends, going on long walks, developing hobbies, loving other people, relishing the taste of things — even being genuinely sad, one of the many feelings major depression, for me at least, completely blunts. That is the world where meaning is.

I would emphasize that it’s not so much the pills, as the fact that, once she started taking them, McClay learned that she could go out and do things, to live her life, to engage with other people, to work on her writing.

As for suffering, she adds this point:

Most of the things I’ve done that I really regret in my life I did because I was in pain, and was willing, or thought I was, to do anything not to be, except get help. It’s always been suffering that’s made me sealed-off and selfish and paranoid, not its alternatives.

Hers is a useful counterpoint to the theorizing by public intellectuals and psycho professionals.

No comments: