May 3, 2008
Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering
God bless America. I mean that with all sincerity. We are a nation of hopefuls and always have been.
We march on Washington. We cure diseases that have wracked humanity for eons. We break records and run faster-than-four-minute miles. We split atoms and conquer space. We manifest our destinies and defy the presence of gorges, rivers, and mountains that threaten to block our collective will.
In our relatively short time on earth, this nation has spawned more utopian societies and splinter religions promising immediate deliverance than any other culture in history.
We not only hope. We demand. And we do not take "no" for an answer. If we have to move mountains, we move them even if we have to do it one truck load at a time. If we have to wipe out polio, we develop a vaccine. If we have to get across enemy lines, we build stealth aircraft. We believe that nothing can stop us but ourselves.
This, in and of itself, is not a consciousness unique to our time. There have been other warrior nations and empires that have been as bold and clever as we have. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Romans have all forged paths through impossibly dense forests and forbidding deserts both concretely and metaphorically.
What IS unique to modern America is that our hopefulness comes with a price tag that no other culture has ever been willing to pay. It comes at the expense of reality and the medium of exchange is our spirit.
We want to be happy. We want to be healthy. We want to be wealthy. And, I believe, this "wanting" is only natural. What is not is that we want to be wealthy without having to work all that hard or study all that much. We want to be healthy without having to eat well, sleep through the night or exercise regularly. We want happiness and love and contentment without ever having to suffer or sacrifice. And we want it now.
Of the three "wants", the third is the most troubling and potentially poses the most subtle danger of our time. The first two (health and wealth) are primarily issues of entitlement which we may address at some other point. The third want-to be happy-is really a deeply ingrained psychic need. We need to be happy at the expense of what we know to be true. We need it so badly that we are forced to deny the obvious inevitability of suffering, rendering it not only meaningless but the mark of a "loser."
A friend of mine had a conversation with a young man that made this version of "happiness" starkly clear. After the young man praised a mutual acquaintance for buying a high-end television, my friend said to him, "I'd rather have nothing and be loved."
To which the young man responded, "That's just loser talk."
You can see this in New Age theology a great deal, where even sickness, injury, and tragedies are by definition self-inflicted and reveal an error in our core programming. In that philosophy, which has permeated the media and popular thinking, we are responsible for everything that happens to us and around us. Happiness, abundance, good health-all these things are seen as our birthrights. So, if we are suffering, if our loved ones are suffering, well, that just means we're writing bad scripts for our lives.
In some ways it is a uniquely American way of nipping God in His Achilles' heel. It says that if there is a God, then it all has to be good, all the time. Evil cannot exist. Because Americans are basically a religious people, for us not to disavow God, we must disavow evil, and by extension, disavow suffering. This is dangerous because in order to do this, in order to deny the value and meaning of suffering, in order to be able to say to someone "If you're not happy or successful something is wrong with you," we have to deny the only real hope we ever had: our souls.
The Soul as Step-Child
Now, this, this societal disavowal of eternity is a new development. At no other time in recorded history has an entire culture determined that life was spiritless, that animal and plant life, no less human life, was a random amalgam of rotating particles, a genetic ratatouille, nothing more, nothing less. It is true, as Benjamin Wiker pointed out in his book Moral Darwinism, that materialism can be traced back to Epicurus. And it is also true that Lucretius, one of his followers, actually spoke of the world being spiritless, meaningless particulate. But that was not a widespread, embedded cultural gestalt. In the modern West our thoughts are seen as merely the empirical product of impersonal neuronal exchanges, our most intimate loves a function of anonymous hormonal cascades, our pains and our longings a problem of poor programming. And this viewpoint pervades society from the top of the ivory tower to the bottom.
In this modern, medical view of ourselves and the world in which we live, we are our bodies. We are material. As such our only legitimate concerns are the prolongation of bodily life and the feeding of bodily desire. There is no great glory in honor, no lofty sentiment or everlasting virtue in friendship, no reason to sacrifice life or limb for another, no eternity and no personal meaning in existence. There is only the gaping maw of ambition, aggression and hunger. What else is there? What else matters in a material world BUT matter?
Logically, not much.
It is no wonder that we are so busy with face lifts, implants, and Viagra. It is no wonder we worry more about the accumulation of goods than we do about relationships. It is no wonder we fret more about getting our fifteen minutes of fame than about giving love. Given our materialism, the fear, the terror, really, of standing face to face with evil, of even being in the same room as suffering makes a great deal of sense. If we are, in fact, our bodies and nothing but our bodies we must not only deny suffering, we must deny death itself because there is nothing for us beyond that. And if we deny death, we must deny life. It is a vicious cycle, an Ouroboros committed only to its own continuity.
A friend of mine is a teacher of theology and, in my mind, a true scholar. When I told her I was writing about suffering, she had this comment:
What I find most interesting when it comes to suffering and modern life is that suffering is the worst thing in the world now for post-Christian man, whereas for Judeo-Christian man the worst thing is sin. Many of our modern evils, like abortion, euthanasia, embryo destruction, and cloning come out of the desire to avoid suffering.
Even those arenas in which one would expect to find the greatest sense of spirituality and the deepest understanding of suffering it has been modernized and distorted. Of all the scriptures in the Bible, it seems that no matter what channel you turn to the message of the modern Evangelical movement is the same as corporate America: Ask and ye shall receive. It is the modern, media spin on the Doctrine of the Elect and Predestination: How do we know you have found God's favor? Because you're successful. How do you get to be successful? By God's favor. So, the goal is to be successful, to acquire wealth, prestige, and power. Somewhere along the line even the ministers have forgotten, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Where did we ever get the idea that we could petition God for happiness as if we were putting quarters into a candy-dispenser, that if you pray "just so" or tithe "just so" that God will reward you with a new job and a corner office? To my ears this sounds like a Christianity that has been co-opted by corporate interests or, worse, by Hollywood.
If it were true, if I saw even the slightest evidence that somehow suffering were avoidable, I would be the first to march behind the banner of utopia and temporal happiness. I am no great fan of suffering and I do not wear sack cloths or wipe ash on my face when I fast. I do not seek it out or take any perverse pride in experiencing more or less of it than anyone else. As far as I can see, though, the Buddha was right. Life is suffering and everyone, but everyone, gets a bowl and his/her proper portion.
The Personal Setting
In writing this article, I had to ask myself: Why shouldn't I avoid suffering? What's in it for me, for anyone? It's a fair question. And the answer I came up with was this: By being present for suffering, we become present for the whole of life, not just the niceties. And the reward is nothing less than the ability to love fully. This is not a philosophical point. It is a most pragmatic, palpable benefit and the only one that really means anything after all. When I think of all the things I did as a young adult to make myself "happy," all the risks I took, all the hurt I created in myself and others-all in the name of happiness, I literally shudder. I rarely actually felt happy and almost never felt deep love. The mantra "whatever makes you happy" ran my life but gave me nothing but heartache.
I am reminded of a book C.S. Lewis wrote (The Four Loves) in which he said (and I paraphrase): If you would love you would suffer. We cannot even love a dog without at one point or another feeling the pain of loss, assuming we outlive the dog. The greatest of all things-love-is itself most intimately bound with suffering. It is a poignant irony, I think. In our attempt to avoid suffering, we cut ourselves off from the one thing that can mitigate it: each other.
One of my dogs, Ty, died about 9 months ago. Of our four dogs, Ty was the one most closely bonded to me. I found him when I volunteered at a shelter, a simple act of kindness he apparently never forgot. He followed me around from room to room, happy to be anywhere in my vicinity, overjoyed at my return even from the bathroom. When he got sick, I took care of him. I knew what was coming. I knew that inevitably I would feel the pain of his loss. Would I, should I have not loved him? Should I have stopped caring for him?
This is what Pope Benedict had to say when asked a similar question:
Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love-this exodus, this going out of oneself-is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.
This does not mean we should seek out suffering or, worse yet, ignore it in others. Precisely the opposite. It is only the person who rejects suffering who can walk past the man who is lying on the street in pain. It is only the tyrant who denies his own humanity, his own pain, and his own soul who can deny it in others. It is only the fearful, the misguided, and the selfish who choose their own comfort at the expense of everything else that matters.
This avoidance of suffering has a multitude of personal consequences, predictably and most noticeably the avoidance of intimacy. There is one man I know who has cut himself off from emotional entanglements altogether in an attempt to ward off the pain of loss. I don't pretend to assume his reasons; they may be many. I know he has experienced the pain of abandonment and witnessed painful deaths. What I can see are the blatant effects of his decision on his life: heavy drinking, isolation, neglect. Even when he is surrounded by those who would love him, he is utterly alone.
The other consequence I have noticed is a tendency to project the suffering outward. People are drawn to reality shows, horror films, and grotesque mutilations on that new genre of TV drama-forensics. I do not fully understand the intrapsychic mechanics of this yet, but it seems to me that we can only deny reality up to a point without either projecting it outward or breaking down. We know that suffering is real. We know that the world is filled with it. But we don't want to deal with it. So we turn it into melodrama and fantasy. We objectify it, minimize it, and depersonalize it. I have seen the same person watch horror show after horror show, play violent video games, but refuse to help care for an elderly relative with incontinence because it was "gross."
Unfortunately, in this world what binds us together and what gives us meaning is a complex amalgam of emotions and experiences. It's not all skipping through the park. People get sick. We get hurt. We make mistakes. We are fallen. And we cannot save ourselves. I am convinced of that. It is always someone else' hand-God's, a spiritual adviser's, a friend's, a spouse's, a parent's-that reaches in to pull us out. This is life.
The other day I had what my husband calls a "wave" of grief. I was looking out the window and my eyes landed on the grassy area where Ty finally took his last breath. My husband followed my gaze and knew what I was feeling. He put his arms around me and said, "It'll pass."
I looked into myself, then up at him, "I'm not sure I ever want it to pass completely."
It surprised me and scared him a little until I explained: To me, joy and happiness are not the same things. Happiness is ephemeral and depends largely on the vagaries of circumstance. It is a transient emotional state that is context-specific and is quickly antidoted by pain or sorrow. Joy is a spiritual state and is therefore, like love, bigger than suffering, than sadness, than pain. Its source is not earth-bound and as such it is independent of the situation in which I may find myself. Joy gives to life. Happiness receives from it. So, I told him and sighed, I can be joyful and still be terribly, awfully sad. I can have hope and simultaneously lament the state of the world. I may suffer. But I love. Deeply. With my eyes and arms and heart wide open. And that kind of love bears me up.