Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Permanent solutions and temporary problems

Suffering is one of humanity's great questions. The larger shifts in our thinking have often been inspired by periods of great anxiety, an excellent example being the great defining of Jewish spirituality by the Hebrews exiled in Babylon.

For some time i have been wondering about whether or not individuals in today's western societies are as emotionally robust as they used to be. i suspect our attitude to suffering is of interest here. We often start by denying and avoiding suffering. It is natural and adaptive to avoid suffering but i wonder if we go nuts with that. We seem to think that suffering is somehow wrong. We should never suffer, we have a right to be perpetually happy, our lives must improve over time, and if we do suffer we must blame soneone else and seek to fix it so that the suffering stops. We forget that disaster is all around us and that we walk through the valley of the dhadow of death. Only a hundred years ago we kept a special baby outfit for the baby that died. We expected our environment and and workplaces to kill us. We knew our young men were expendable; they died taking the big risks for us. We understood famine and disease.

In between times we have been driven to make life better for ourselves and we have in part succeeded. The demand to stop suffering has led to better health care and to a rightful expansion of human and civil rights. But we may also have left ourselves more emotionally vulnerable.

One worrying sign is an inability to tolerate any bad feelings. People have always felt suicidal over the more unusual life crises - financial failure, terminal illness, being caught for a major crime. But people attempt suicide in the wake of transient stress - exams, relationship breakups, feeling insulted. They do not have the insight that tells us we will get over it. Signs posted on the Golden Gate Bridge (where about 30 people a year still jump) say 'Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem'. Will i ever get over it? Will i still feel like this tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? Well, for now, i feel bad and i can't tolerate it, not at all, i never thought i would feel like this and i can't stand it. Nothing prepared me for this. It is incomprehensible and impossible.

We conflate mental illness and suffering. Maybe we don't have a mood disorder, we are just miserable and reactive. Maybe it is OK to grieve and rail and sulk for a bit. We might not need fixing. We might be best leaning into our suffering, talking back to it, asking it what message it has for us, learning and caring for ourselves. Thinking of ourselves as mentally ill denigrates our suffering and distances ourself from it. It is also moncultural, not taking into account forms of suffering that clearly don't spring from mental illness, or mental illness where people aren't suffering but just living their lives and maybe damn well enjoying them. Let us have some discernment and some practical care.

Of ourse we do not want to blame victims of adverse circumstances or discriminate against people who have mental illnesses. i don't think we unconsciously cause all of our suffering or that everything bad that happens to us is somehow our fault. If anything, i want to emphasise the sheer random weirdness and universality of suffering. Stuff happens. It's how we respond that counts. We are all in this life, all doing our best with what we've got. At times in our big history, suffering has united us. The suicide rate declined during the London blitz. We have undergone great shifts in our thinking about ourselves and our world when we have been challenged by social and environmental shifts. Maybe it is time to think about suffering again, if it helps teach us about our place in our world.

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