COLUMN: The Pain of Living: human attempts to find comfort
“Life is hard. Then you die.”
We have all heard this. “Life is difficult”, says M. Scott Peck, in the first sentence of his highly-recommended work on the psychology of love, The Road Less Travelled.* Some wit added the tagline – “then you die.”
[ *Listen to the audio book at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysgUYsBoeY0&t=36s]
That summary may well describe life in a nutshell, yet, between coming into life and experiencing death there can be a lot of living, some of it neither hard nor painful. Life can be good, easy, and pleasurable.
But I am writing today about the reasons life is not easy. “Pain” — physical, mental, and spiritual/emotional — is a word that can sum up most of what makes life not easy.
Life hurts. Without pain and suffering, life could be wonderful for humans, it seems reasonable to assert. Avoidance of pain and planning for pleasure might just be the simplest summary of how modern individuals make their choices on life’s path. Being prepared for pain might be the simplest summary of teachings from many spiritual mentors.
Physical pain is simplest to imagine and understand. Who has never felt it?
Emotional or mental anguish is more complicated. The source of such suffering can often enough be found in a very old human, and animal, feeling, fear.
Fear is functional; it keeps us alive, aware of dangerous situations, motivating us to avoid peril and harm. But fear can be dysfunctional, having no means of relief because the fear is not directly caused by a physical threat.
Threats that one will suffer future physical hurts are often greatly feared, no matter how uncertain anyone is of the future. One can feel fear when there seems to be absurdly-insignificant chance of harm, for humans do not calculate risk at all rationally, else no one would take a chance on lottery tickets. People live in a state of fear for reasons I would term irrational and bordering on insanity, but I am not them. Fear strikes us all in highly-individual ways, and the entire sector of medicine we call psychology derives its raison d’etre from this fact. More about psychology and one of its founding father, Sigmund Freud, in a moment.
Fear also attaches to non-physical threat such as loss of something one loves, a person or object or status. We all know the discomfort of fear that our child or our lover or parent may be taken from us by accident; or we fear losing our relationship with them through breakdown of our loving connection: “Love hurts,” as the song says.
This is the human condition. Life offers no guarantee against fearful occurrence. Loss and grief are the most severe types of non-physical pain we can experience. They can cause real physical pain. Heartache is real.
The worst result of physical harm is death. We fear our own, but every individual has a unique level of fear about one’s own death and about its “meaning.” I will return to the issue of meaning shortly.
We fear the death of certain people who mean a great deal to us, whose lives increase our own happiness, for that is the loss that can never be undone.
Death has been with humans since before we were homo sapiens, and other species besides us know the grief that comes with death of a loved one; dogs, cats, elephants and chimpanzees are a few of the mammals we observe mourning when they lose a loved member of their group.
Freud hypothesized that humans possess two main instincts or drives, Eros and Thanatos, love and death. His work is not held in high regard today, not worthy of the coveted adjective “scientific” – yet, because Freud is so much an icon of modernism and the mental universe of our Western cultural tradition, I will allow him a mention here.
[For a good recent overview of the state of psychiatry’s reputation with the public, visit this site: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/can-psychiatry-turn-itself-around/]
Freud conjectured – without clinical proof, and in full awareness of the need for much more research on the question – that humans have a drive to equilibrium, to an escape from an “imbalance of energy” and to “resolve tensions in the organism.” This is a drive toward death as a release, a relief from the pain and suffering of human life. Seen this way, death is not totally awful; but Thanatos is opposed by Eros, the urge to reproduce and to seek pleasure. These are ideas found in his 1920 book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
The example of Freud himself in the manner of his death demonstrates one way a person might face painful extinction by disease: suicide. He was dying of cancer and administered an overdose of morphine to himself in 1939.
Pleasure-seeking, or the Eros instinct, certainly seems to drive modern people, and science responds to this human drive by researching it.
[Here is a current article on female pleasure from Canada’s Walrus magazine, concerning a Canadian scientist: https://thewalrus.ca/building-a-better-female-orgasm/]
Freud had a few guesses about humans’ relationship to their death:
“Furthermore, the death instinct finds itself in a constant struggle with the libido, which Freud presents as a substitution for perfection. That is to say, the creation of new life takes the place of the individual organism’s attainment of perfection, which Freud believes is impossible given the inevitability of death in the face of such a strong biological drive. The [book] contains Freud’s exploration of the idea that death was acquired late in the development of higher organisms. He also draws an analogy between the libido and Eros, which he takes as the poetic representation of the force which binds together the universe and all living things [–] Death is a] drive to equilibrium, in which a distinct organism attempts to return to a primordial state in which there were not individual entities, but rather a great mass of single-celled creatures.” [Source unknown. Editor]
Death has inspired some odd speculations by thinkers in the West, as one sees from this theorizing by the founder of psychoanalysis. Religions have generated some of the strangest and most varied notions, about what death is, and is for.
Religion, said Karl Marx famously, is an opiate – it eases pain. The human world demands means to lessen the pains of life. Religion accomplishes that; so does medicine. Pain comes in many forms. Neither religious solace nor medical science eliminates death. But the two epistemologies affect life differently.
I recently had an interesting email exchange with my editor on the efficacy of religion, superstition (such as Tarot card-reading) and science for easing the human condition, which correspondence was one of the inspirations for my writing this column.
Life being bracketed by two great unknowns – where “I” was before I lived, and what happens to “me” when I die – humans have developed means to make the prospect of death, and pain, and suffering, more bearable. We need and desire solace for pain and the prospect of suffering. I call such methods of comforting ourselves part of culture.
Culture includes religious ideas; it contains many other phenomena. Here is a pretty fair paragraph on what culture is from Yuval Harari in his very popular best-selling book, Sapiens:
“After the Agricultural Revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture.’ ” (p. 163)
There is much fascinating material in Harari’s book – his discussion of patriarchy and of The Cognitive Revolution are two examples – but for my purposes, it is his focus on culture as imagined, fictitious, and shared social construction, of “inter-subjective-realities,” that is relevant.
We comfort ourselves in the pain and suffering of the human condition in ways our cultures dictate. What is comforting, a relief of spiritual and emotional pain, in one culture may well be meaningless and useless in another culture.
Humans thrive on a sense of meaning. This is another topic on which Harari is quite good, and I recommend his short YouTube talk about the meaning of life.
[You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQ6IS1Upc70]
Charles Eisenstein too is penetrating in his analysis of how The Story of the People gives humans our meanings for life, and make our lives more or less bearable. Without a sense of meaning for living, humans may very well die of apathy; addiction to substances that will eventually kill you is one result of that.
[But addiction has many possible explanations; Culture itself might be the cause. At this site, Gabor Mate articulates what he has learned about addiction: http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/gabor-mat%C3%A9-why-were-culture-addicts]
Culture determines what comforts us in the sufferings of life. Humans live in culture; in all culture, certain behaviours are rewarded, others punished. Conforming to the norms, accepting the social construction of reality, agreeing with the values of society, makes life a lot less anxious and painful. Position your way of life against the mainstream current of society, and your life will have more struggle than the life of the person who resists less. Rebels may consider themselves more conscious than the “sheeple” who do not resist; the person who is comfortable with conformity rejects the label “unconscious.”
Sometimes possession of material things eases one’s lot, particularly if you possess significantly more things than most of your fellow humans. Culture makes the difference; just how much it matters to be rich in things is not a constant across all cultures. Things, material wealth, are an inconstant solace.
In a culture where the intangible quality of “nobility” is highly regarded, the person of base blood will never escape the social pain of being “common” no matter how much wealth they might accumulate through commerce. In late medieval France, a very rich commoner named Jacques Coeur never earned respect from nobles poorer than he, and he was imprisoned quite legally for life by the king he displeased. Medieval Jews could be very wealthy indeed within Christendom but the suffering of Jews was not lessened by the wealth of their bankers and merchants.
The culture of a Franciscan monastery valued material things not at all; medieval Christian teaching positively decried riches of this world. Yet the medieval ruling class always had wealth in land, whether one speaks of the lay elite of warriors and lords or the ecclesiastical elite of popes and bishops. Power is never entirely without reference to material possessions. India’s classic caste system is prime evidence for this fact; Brahmins, the highest caste, the people of fairest skin-tones and purest ritual status, were never miserably impoverished, though they were not the aristocracy of political and military function. The Kshatriya caste of noble lords had lower status than the Brahmins, and often higher wealth in land and treasure.
The worst divisions of human society are the ones that do not allow people to cross lines, as in race, colour, creed, and caste. Systems which decree individuals are trapped in their status and no “rise” is possible are cultures where the pain of living is decreed to be greater for the wrong sort of people, and easier living is for the best sort. Suffering is greater for the person of the “less-worthy” demographic grouping. Power is in inverse relation to the hardness of life; this seems common sense. More about power in a moment.
[Here is Harari speaking on the topic of social inequality, reported in a major British newspaper: https://www.google.ca/webhp?source=search_app&gfe_rd=cr&ei=3DlDWeTqHdPM8gfDvbioBw&gws_rd=ssl#q=y+harari+unequal+Guardian]
Modern Western society, from the time of the Western Enlightenment, has upheld two great principles, individualism and egalitarianism. These two have ended centuries of division of peoples into layers which are impermeable, but Western society is hardly a utopia of social justice.
We still need forms of solace for the sufferings endemic in our social order; while possession of ample wealth as money is theoretically possible under “free-market capitalism” for any person who works hard and exercises talent in the “right” [best-paid] fields, the theory has not produced happiness for all, despite the promise of the American Declaration of Independence, that we can all pursue happiness. There is still a class system, and equality is merely an ideal, far from realization in the distribution of material wealth.
Money cannot buy happiness. Happiness experienced simultaneously with deprivation and poverty has been, in history, the fortune of only a few humans who possess those particular, even peculiar, spiritual qualities that render material poverty comfortable.
Most people require a modicum of material possessions and security to feel a degree of ease about their lives, and the West is the civilization where a “middle” layer of people in society have had sufficient for that.
Materialism is insufficient in itself for a life relieved from anxiety and suffering, since matter does not resolve immaterial sources of human suffering. But it is common-sensical to observe that there is a minimum level of material security without which life must be much harder.
[I recommend this piece for an amusing response to one of the worlds’ richest men, Elon Musk, and his belief in materialism and technology: https://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=4092]
As I have asserted above, there are many forms of solace and relief for the hard human condition of life; our culture comforts us with high ideals and imagined reward for our suffering. Here I will address one form culture takes, religion, and one particular religion, Christianity.
C. S. Lewis is another important voice of modernism, addressing the question of maintaining belief in his religion. Lewis had a Christian perspective on pain; he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain. It was published in 1940, the year after Freud had committed suicide. Lewis consciously addressed himself to the condition of modern humanity, to the new cultural and mental environment that modernism had created since the dawn of the Industrial and French revolutions. Religion in the West was in manifest decline after WWI and even more so after WWII.
Modernism is very much a conscious condition of post-religious faith. The mind of modern humanity in the West no longer derives comfort from the Christian teachings efficacious in medieval and colonial eras. We do not, in the main, derive the meaning of human life from the Christian mental universe, where God has a purpose for each human soul and each of us lives optimally when we most align with God’s purposes.
Lewis knew this, and his aim in the many books he produced to explain Christianity to lay people was to prove the teachings were neither irrelevant nor worthless in the modern age.
Pain is not a reason to disbelieve in the omnipotent, loving God, Lewis wrote; just because God allows pain, God is neither lacking in love for us nor lacking in power to stop suffering. It is a difficult case to make, but Lewis makes it as well, as persuasively, as any writer ever has.
If I am not persuaded by his arguments ultimately, it is because I cannot enter whole-heartedly into the premises of Christianity. I have the freedom to think outside that particular box only because I am born in the modern era; I very much doubt I could live outside that frame had I been born in medieval Europe.
One of the clear advantages from the possession and exercise of power by an individual over other humans is, the person with power experiences lesser pain and suffering than people without power. Power is attractive for this reason.
[Here is an excellent video with Gabor Mate on addiction and power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jRLVD43u4A]
The history of how humanity has organized itself consistently into hierarchies has been the topic of this column in the past, and Yuval Harari has a good summary account in Sapiens. The point of having power – not the only point, but surely the weightiest motivation for the consistent drive among humans toward acquiring power over other humans – is to lessen one’s own suffering and off-loading whatever pain one can onto others. “Better you than me.”
One might wish to have a high opinion of homo sapiens, the species to which we belong. I want to say I think we are moral beings, more often good than not, and to point to history as my evidence for such philanthropy. I cannot say that with a sincere face or in good conscience; I do not think it is so. But I have the authority of Harari to assert that our standards of judgement, our notion of human rights and morality, are fictions, not reality.
“No matter what you call it… the dynamics of history are not directed toward the enhancement of human well-being,” Harari declares. “Like [biological] evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms, and individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own individual advantage.” (my italics, not the author’s).
If you have power to alter history to your own personal advantage, by all means do so, there is no real moral law that forbids you. Evolutionary biology “expects” you to do exactly that.
Not everyone is as misanthropic as I have just revealed myself to be. Gabor Mate certainly is not, as one can see in the online references to his research that I have supplied above. For him, the reality is that humans are co-operative by nature, not amoral beings.
Materialism is, to me, the defining characteristic of how modern humans in the advanced West understand their lives. Science is materialist, and has given us amazing medicines, surgeries, machines, and instruments to make life healthier and longer, less laborious, more entertaining, and less painful.
But matter is only, as I have said above, part of the reason we experience life as hard. Just in the time I have been composing this column on my laptop while the TV is on, I saw two things that provoked thoughts about misery and the good life.
Who has the better fate – the man who dies when attacked by thieves and is murdered? Or the friend who ran away and left the victim to be killed? The deserter, the friend who was no friend, will live a life of mental agony for the moral failing of not helping his dead companion. The dead man is beyond all suffering, in the common understanding of what it means to be dead. His loved ones are left to the anguish of grief.
What is a good life? I watched a television ad just now for Jeep Compass. It has a plan for us, to have a good life by owning a good vehicle and making wonderful journeys with our spouse and children. Other ads tell me life is aboutmaking good choices. Ads for banks especially tell us this. WalMart’s slogan is “Save money. Live better.”
[Visit the adbuster magazine website for some penetrating but dyspeptic perspectives on our culture: https://subscribe.adbusters.org/products/ab132]
Between the moral and ethical teachings offered by advertising, I watch the entertainment of sitcoms and drama similarly offer me some moral teaching about doing the right thing in various imagined situations. This is the culture I am born into, and apparently I lack the will to simply not watch TV and choose better entertainments… Have I said I also read good books? I do.
I have concluded other columns with observations about how we each have to find our own meaning in life, and make meaning out of the events of our lives, for there is now no imagined narrative for the significance of human life such as religion once created for us.
Science purports to tell us nothing about the meaning of reality. Meaning is not part of the fabric of reality, it is a human construct. (Please note that in English our word “reality” derives from the Latin word “res,” thing. Reality is thingi-ness. Things are real. Ideas? Less so, says Harari.)
Perhaps it is just another fiction that humans must experience a feeling of meaning in order to live life with purpose and with goodwill toward others. It is a fiction that I will try to promote, if fiction it is.
Why would I do that? Because it has been my experience that I, and others whom I have known well, live with less anxiety and more contentment when we live with a sense of purpose.
That may not have been your experience, your truth. Live your truth, no one can force you to do otherwise – says the mind of postmodern consciousness.
Typically, at the end of a column, I’ve returned to that subject of my fascination that was not a focus of my curiosity at all when I was younger: Consciousness.