Last night I came across a New York Times article on Suffering by Pico Iyer:
“I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.
Yet none of that begins to apply to a child gassed to death (or born with AIDS or hit by a “limited strike”). Philosophy cannot cure a toothache, and the person who starts going on about its long-term benefits may induce a headache, too.”
The article relates suffering with passion, with growth. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that a writer of Iyer’s stature could make such a mistake. There’s a difference between wilfully bearing hardship and unwittingly falling on bad times. The same difference that exists between hunger from fasting and hunger from poverty. In one of the two, you have a choice. That choice matters.
I am wary of those who try to make sense of, what is most often, senseless suffering. Attempts to give it meaning reek to me of an egotism so profound that even in the random misery of another it tries to project its mental image. Reading shapes in the cloud isn’t a marvel of nature, but of the human mind. Only some marvels are more perverse than others.
I recently found the fascinating research by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif on scarcity and cognition. The economist-psychologist duo work on how having too little – being in a state of helpless scarcity – affects individuals’ capacities to think. They noticed drops in standardised IQ tests in periods of stress and scarcity. The research throws out the window the romantic idea that we grow through pain and misfortune. On the contrary, we have very little mental bandwidth to spare on the more esoteric of human pursuits. Survival becomes the sole objective. Resilience in the face of hardship is often the instinct to survive oversold as ‘triumph of the human spirit’. Just read the press after a socio-politically powerful city has been bombed.
But to bundle up all suffering into one neat pile and proclaim “philosophy cannot cure a toothache” seems ill-thought-out too. There is suffering we choose for ourselves. Through discipline and voluntary denial. And in that, I suppose, there is the chance to find deeper understanding of oneself. Because all suffering strips away the excess, brings into focus that which is most necessary. Only when the suffering is chosen, fear and uncertainty are also stripped away. What remains is clarity and pain – a potent combination to any mind open enough to receive and learn. Dealing with suffering of any kind – chosen or befallen – will show you the limits to which you can go. But your chances of emerging the wiser are starkly higher in the former than the latter.