Should life be hard?
December 29, 2016 8:24 AM   Subscribe

 
as Henry Miller put it in one of his later books, almost all suffering is unnecessary, but you must first suffer in order to achieve this wisdom.
posted by philip-random at 9:25 AM on December 29, 2016 [11 favorites]


It may not have to but it will a lot of the time anyway.
posted by jonmc at 9:28 AM on December 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


" In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”."

That's about the size of it, with, as the writer points out, the caveat that it's really "the suffering that other people experienced in my childhood".
posted by Frowner at 9:46 AM on December 29, 2016 [21 favorites]


I'd just throw out the whole 'untestability' thing. Blindly assuming that a person in 2016 has less suffering than a randomly selected person in 1066 makes, well, a lot of assumptions.

Yes, I did not have to resort to any Galenic Theory of Humores lately for an infection. Nor did I head on down the nearest Bear Baitin' place to burn some cats. So, I'm glad about that. Certainly, I feel (on some boring statistical measure, like intense hunger pains/annum) fewer material agonies than the average 1066'er.

But do I suffer more or less? As in free of attachment?
posted by mrdaneri at 9:57 AM on December 29, 2016


Certainly, I feel (on some boring statistical measure, like intense hunger pains/annum) fewer material agonies than the average 1066'er.

To the extent that "suffering" gets thrown around in these particular discussions, I think that it's meant more as a "boring statistical" thing than an internal satisfaction thing.

Let's take an anti-welfare argument like: "If we give [those people] money, they won't be motivated to work." That argument implies that people need to be at risk of suffering poverty in order to be motivated. Poverty is plain and simple physical deprivation style suffering, as opposed to a more spiritual form of suffering that one might walk the Eightfold Path to address.

And that's not getting into the fact (addressed in the article) that it's just plain easier to be free of attachments when one's basic survival needs are more easily met.

I think there's a point to be made that people aren't only motivated to [do thing] by the risk of suffering, they can be motivated by the basic desire to "better" themselves. "Better" is in scarequotes because it can mean different things to different people. But what it comes down is that people who say "[Those people] don't deserve [thing] because otherwise they will be lazy mooches"are really saying "I don't believe that [those people] are motivated by anything besides their basest instincts. [My people], on the other hand, have the moral fortitude to better ourselves even though we already have our basic needs more than comfortably met."

Which... ugh.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:46 AM on December 29, 2016 [20 favorites]


That's about the size of it, with, as the writer points out, the caveat that it's really "the suffering that other people experienced in my childhood".

I don't know. I don't want to suffer as much as I did in my childhood the rest of my life. In fact, I feel like I've been trying and failing to finally break the chain of cause and effect that caused my suffering as a child most of my life. But my case is pretty unusual. Most kids don't have heroin addicts for moms and brain damaged psychopaths for dads or get kidnapped by their American grandparents or have mental breakdowns and get harassed at work for their politics and get surprise divorced in their forties with two kids. So obviously I'm an outlier...

I agree suffering isn't necessary. It's caused chiefly by social disconnect/communication breakdown, emotional trauma that propagates through culture and social behavior, and bad ideas. But until we find an effective solution for those, unnecessary suffering stays with us.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:59 AM on December 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it.
I think this attitude really hinges on that second part: "Your suffering is not my problem". This has always been a tempting and pervasive mindset among those who are in power or who have the resources to prevent the suffering of others. (It's also an attitude held by plenty of people who are suffering themselves, but they are already in less of a position to help others on a larger scale.) Arguing that "suffering is good for you" feels like an ad hoc justification for holding on to the belief that it isn't your responsibility to help people who need help. "No, see, I'm doing both of us a favor by not giving you a handout. You get to learn the value of suffering, and I don't have to sacrifice anything of my own. It's a win-win!"
posted by Desidiosus at 11:26 AM on December 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


Something that gets lost in the discussion of "suffering" seems to be that there's different kinds of suffering. You got the normal, everyday kind of bullshit that we all suffer through. Say, for example, you're walking from the kitchen after reheating your leftovers for lunch, and you drop the bowl, spilling your lunch on the floor. That's a kind of suffering, but for the kind of person who's on MeFi, it's probably minor. You clean it up, you grump, and then you go make a sandwich.

Now, imagine you've just spilled your lunch on the floor, with the knowledge that's all you'll have to eat today. Possibly for the next couple days. That is a very different kind of suffering, and that's the sort of suffering we could easily do without. Yet, we run into people all the time who make claims like "Food stamps may give you a full stomach, but an empty soul," which is, categorically, bullshit. Or, similarly, the kind of people who are more than happy to take help, and then deny it to others. I'm thinking of Craig T. Nelson who said something about Obamacare to the effect of "Oh, I was a struggling actor on food stamps and welfare. Nobody gave me any help."
posted by SansPoint at 12:10 PM on December 29, 2016 [14 favorites]


I don't think people need to suffer, but I do think at most people need to be challenged, and suffering fills that role for too many people. If you take care of people's basic needs, it actually frees them up for other, more productive or at least interesting challenges, which is usually (usually) in the better interests of society as a whole.

But people project. They tend to see themselves as the baseline, and they perceive others' difficulties through their own experiences, so this part, I think, misses something:

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities. If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

The advocates of suffering think they are suffering. People who've been given a lot of unfair advantage perceive any loss of privilege as discrimination. They're projecting, and they're assuming that their hurt feelings about slights, real and imagined, are on the same level as the discrimination and other challenges that others face.

So they're not consciously advocating for others to suffer more than they do. They're oblivious to the fact that they already do. And I will confess that, every now and again, I entertain the idea that people who think like that probably could stand a little more suffering in their lives, just to familiarize them.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:18 PM on December 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


If suffering makes people better people, I should be perfect. I'm not. In fact, my suffering is one of the things that makes it hard to be a decent person even as much as I aspire to be, so I find the whole idea sadistic and perverse, on a deeply personal and immediate level.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:26 PM on December 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


SansPoint That is an important distinction. I was speaking to the philosophical concept of suffering in my comment above.

As for myself, I am more from saulgoodman's camp. I am a survivor of a catastrophic accident, in which I spent a year in a hospital, six months confined to a bed, nine surgeries, etc. I'm quite familiar, personally, with many of the gradations of suffering, as far as 'pain' is concerned.

That's salient only in that I wanted to distinguish myself as not speaking to the '[LET THE LESSERS SUFFER UNTIL THEY ARE PURE]' camp of social safety net architects. I can speak to the fact that pain, in and of itself, brings no great virtue.
posted by mrdaneri at 12:29 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


The thing is that the capacity for "suffering" is very different. There are some people who are satisfied with circumstances that I would not tolerate for a second-- but they are relatively satisfied as long as they can survive. Meanwhile, Robert Redford- a phenomenally successful and wealthy man -- describes his philosophy as, "life is essentially unhappy, and good times only come in small bursts."

There is no amount of calculated suffering that will ensure everyone "suffers" so much they will be motivated to escape it, and there is no amount of success that will insulate you from personal suffering.

In life, suffering is inevitable, whatever your circumstances, so there is no reason to encourage it or enable it where it doesn't have to be. As the writer says, "we're not really on the verge of a great suffering shortage."
posted by deanc at 1:13 PM on December 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


I suspect if you're privileged, the fact that you can alleviate other "lesser" people's suffering makes that suffering easier to dismiss. "Dude, maybe once you've worked hard enough to get to where I am*, you can understand the challenge of trying to get Maroon5 to play at your kid's 16th birthday. Rent? How is it you haven't even solved that?"

* The speaker, with 99% certainty, didn't get to that point by hard work; "I earned it!" is the biggest lie we all tell ourselves, about everything, when instead "I got lucky" is way more accurate
posted by maxwelton at 1:22 PM on December 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


maxwelton: Insert that quote about poor Americans seeing themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires here.
posted by SansPoint at 1:33 PM on December 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


I suspect if you're privileged, the fact that you can alleviate other "lesser" people's suffering makes that suffering easier to dismiss.

I don't think I buy this... I think it's more that people are more focused on their own suffering. Why should I help you pay your rent? No one is helping me pay my $6,000 mortgage!

(I think you're mostly* right about the "I earned it/I'm lucky" divide though)

*I think there are successful, privileged people who did "work hard" to get where they are and were also lucky in that they were able to do that work and be rewarded for it. Not all successful privileged people certainly, but, but at least a few. And obviously a lot of those folks only focus on the hard work they did, not the luck they had.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:33 PM on December 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones?

Exactly. If suffering creates effort and motivation, why do the already-rich try so hard to reduce the burden of having to suffer by paying taxes?

Surely suffering more through increased taxation will motivate them more?

Instead, the neoliberal economic right acts as if the 1% will just give up and retire if they lose the motivation of keeping everything for themselves.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:27 PM on December 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


I don't want to suffer as much as I did in my childhood the rest of my life.

I think the point is that those who grew up in favourable conditions think that the amount of suffering others experienced during their childhood is 'the right amount'.
posted by autocol at 4:23 PM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


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