Suffering… two responses

I was thinking about how my mind works in response to two related things.

I was reading some of Tim Boucher’s writings on his site.  I visit his site every so often partly because he comes up in many web searches as he happens to share many of my same interests: Jung, Philip K. Dick, Ken Wilber, Joseph Campbell, Gnosticism, conspiracy theory, mythology, psychology, etc.  I agree with much of Boucher’s ideas.  In his thinking, he is analytical, imaginative, and curious.  Also, he normally is fairly critical of anything New Agey and I can be similarly critical. 

But then I came across his post What The Hell Happened To Me? which is different than his typical writing.   This was shortly after a period (August 2005 to October 1007) when he had questioned deeply and had a difficult time, and I guess he had come to a new insight.  My response to this post was a combination of surprise and irritation.  In that post, he claims to have overcome suffering which is fine and dandy.  But the damn post sounds like an advertisement for a New Age self-help program.  I sensed no deep insight, no authenticity.  I was disappointed that Boucher had turned to the light side.  I’m not unhappy for his happiness.  I just would hate for someone with  such a great intellect to lose his edge.

My point isn’t to complain about Boucher, but to describe my reaction.  And then compare it to my reaction to something else. 

A couple of weeks ago, a co-worker told me about a girl at a local highschool who killed herself.  My immediate response wasn’t sadness.  I was… what’s the proper word… not quite glad but I did feel something akin to a positive emotion.  Let me explain.

I’ve suffered depression for decades now.  I’ve felt suicidal many times over the years and even attempted once.  I don’t take it lightly, and I doubt the girl did either.  Committing suicide is immensely difficult.  The average successful suicide usually comes after many many attempts.  You have to really want to die which means you have to be really suffering.  It’s true that suffering doesn’t always last.  However, this girl was young… and if she was already suffering this much at this young of an age, then there was a very good chance that life wasn’t going to get easier.

I was “glad” that she escaped a life of potentially great suffering.  Anyone who has experienced long-term severe depression realizes how life can become a personal hell.  Some say suicide is selfish and I say bullshit.  It’s the ultimate act of self-negation.  Nobody wants to die.  A suicidal person simply doesn’t want to suffer and everyone has their breaking point.  Yes, I’m sorry that life was so sad for her and I’m sorry about how her family must feel, but I’m not sorry that her suffering in this world is now at an end.  And if there is an afterlife, I hope it’s much better.

Boucher claims that suffering isn’t a real emotion, that we weren’t sent here to suffer.  Sure, sure.  I’m glad that Boucher’s suffering went away, but it doesn’t always go away for everyone, probably not even for most people… and he shouldn’t feel so sure that suffering will never come back for him.  The position that suffering is unnecessary can be one of the most cruel beliefs because then people just blame themselves.  The fact is that humans suffer.  Sometimes suffering becomes less and sometimes it becomes worse… just like any other experience in life. Boucher has suffered in the past and so he thinks he understands, but he is in no position to judge the suffering of all of mankind.  Many gurus and prophets have denied suffering.  Such people (and their claims) come and go, and yet suffering continues.

12 thoughts on “Suffering… two responses

  1. Tim Boucher noticed this here blog post and responded to it:

    http://www.timboucher.com/journal/2009/05/10/the-end-of-suffering/

    And here is my response in return:

    Yeah, fuck that guy… oh wait, I am that guy. lol

    Vindictiveness, control. I’m sure some people attempt suicide for these reasons and many other reasons as well.

    When I attempted suicide, it was simply for feeling trapped and desparate, feeling as if there was no solution to my problems. I don’t think I was feeling vindictive, but I certainly was seeking control in my life… control in the sense of a desire for some action that would eliminate or at least lessen my suffering, a desire for a choice that would give my life meaning.

    In my blog, I was partly just arguing against making generalized statements about suffering. Tim is free to speak of his own suffering, but I suspect there is a severe limit to the degree we can speak about the suffering of others. To me, human experience in general and suffering in particular is largely a mystery.

    That said, I may have been overly critical of Tim. I more or less understand his view on suffering. I was raised in New Thought Christianity and so part of me is attracted to this attitude. However, decades of struggling with severe depression has dampened my New Age idealism. I don’t know what is true, but like Tim I can only go by my own experience.

    I’ve had various spiritual practices (and spiritual experiences) over the years. I’ve attempted to have a positive attitude and be proactive in my life. I’ve done therapy and medications. I’ve volunteered and exercised. And yet my life has continued to be a struggle. So, I don’t know.

    If whatever Tim has done works for him, then more power to him. I was only pointing out that his experience might not apply to everyone. But maybe I’m just being cynical and suffering really is unnecessary. I genuinely can say that I hope so.

    • “To me, human experience in general and suffering in particular is largely a mystery.” I agree.

      And as with mysteries in general, the nature inclination with most people is to try to solve them. I prefer the mystery stay a mystery…not something to be solved but a means to facilitate though and contemplation.

      I don’t know if this is going to make sense and I don’t wish to oversimplify a complex topic nor condone self-destructive behavior, but I think people’s common reaction to suicide is often of a mystery that has to be solved when maybe the event should be more of a mirror by which others reflect upon their own lives. But this requires an emotional honesty few possess, to see suicide as not so much a selfish act, but possibly one of altruism meant to facilitate a necessary realization among others about themselves and the world we live in.

      I can still recall the day I came across a small section in my weekly news magazine. It was a section easy to overlook sounded by soulless ads. It had been a day like any other day…uneventful, empty and soon to be forgotten. The section was a few words, barely a paragraph, and had a small photo above it. It said that Kevin Carter, who had won the Pulitzer in 1993 for a photo taken during the famine in Sudan, had committed suicide. There was a great sense of sadness and loss. But mixed in with the sadness and loss was an inexplicable sense of equanimity and gratitude that such honesty exists and knowing he had been there to capture a moment to reveal to the world something about itself. A day soon to be forgotten is still to this day vividly recalled.

      http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/vulture-little-girl/

      • I’ve contemplated suicide off and on for decades now, ever since that first attempt after high school. It’s always there at the back of mind, the ever-present last option.

        I’ve never been one to think life is of value simply because people are born. Life is only valuable to the degree we make it so. But the sad fact is we live in an anxiety-ridden and despair-inducing society. The US has higher rates of mental illness and violence than most Western countries. This is not a good place to live.

        If you’re going to blame others for killing themselves or trying to do so, you should first blame yourself for being part of a society that makes people want to kill themselves. The problem it’s the very judgmental attitude that Boucher was expressing that leads to further suffering and increases the likelihood of suicide. He isn’t making the world a better place by projecting his own experience and issues onto others.

        Suffering is a mystery, as is all of existence. And such mysteries make people uncomfortable. It forces people to become more aware of the world around them, to think more deeply about what it means to be human and about what kind of society we live in. It’s easier to judge others, much easier than compassion, sympathy, and understanding… or, failing that, acceptance.

        • Correction: Kevin Carter was awarded the Pulitzer in 1994.

          Hi Ben,

          I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in Finland or Denmark where people seem to be more honest and have a more mature, enlightened sense of the realities of life. It’s ironic societies in Finland and Denmark are often seen as more morose and yet there are studies showing people there are generally more “happy”. Our country on the other hand really is toxic more often than not when it comes to how people treat each other, which is made all the worse by the delusion of American exceptionalism.

          I find the judgemental attitudes and responses to suicide irksome as well. The whole conversation about death in general, e.g. euthanasia, the right to die, etc., in our country, like so many other things, is primitive, naive and unsophisticated. I was thinking about biological altruism earlier today and how bees, for example, when inflicted with some disease, which maybe a threat to the colony, will often leave and sacrifice itself to prevent the disease from spreading to others and to preserve the colony. Well in our society, it’s the colony itself that is diseased and making the bees sick.

          Compassion, sympathy, understanding and acceptance are harder to come by these days. I don’t think it even reaches the point of effort. It simply doesn’t pass the point of sheer apathy and people simple rather not be bothered with complexity. And so ignorance becomes the comfort-zone, societal norm, status quo default, which is the inexcusable laziness, selfishness and cowardliness that is tolerated and appeased while truth, intelligence and empathy starves, withers and dies.

          • I’m at the moment reading the Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen. The broad comparison between the US and Nordic countries is already familiar to me. What makes it interesting is the author is a Finnish journalist who married an American and moved to the US.

            It’s obvious how deeply this has concerned her on a personal level, in trying to adapt to American society and understanding what makes it so different. Even as a thoughtful American, it helps me gain perspective. I’ve never lived or even visited another country. I appreciate seeing the world through foreign eyes.

            I’m still near the beginning of the book, but I’ve already come across some telling data. Around 1 in 5 Americans suffer anxiety disorder with a particular anti-anxiety medication being the most common prescription in the country. Also, 90% of American women feel financially insecure and 46% of them seriously worry about becoming homeless.

            The basic message of the book is this. Americans are stressed out, living with constant worry and fear, a sense of overwhelming desperation ever looming as a threat. This has led Americans, despite all the individualistic rhetoric, to be highly dependent on others, such as spouses and employers. It’s in the collectivist-minded Nordic countries that people are more free to act independently, unconcerned about becoming destitute because of divorce or losing their insurance because of unemployment.

            Living in the US, this constant shittiness is all that we know. Until you read about a different kind of society, it’s easy to forget how utterly fucked up is this country.

          • Hello again! It has been a long time.

            I sometimes look back at the comments of old posts like this. I see the username of someone I haven’t seen around in a long time. It always makes me wonder what happened to them. People will comment a bunch, sometimes for months or even years, and then just disappear. But sometimes they pop back in again.

            I just keep doing my own thing, as commenters come and go. With my alternative views and confrontational attitude, I don’t exactly inspire a large loyal following. That’s fine.

      • Same as you i think. Keep trudging, trudging meaning walking with purpose here. At least if you do it that will make one of us

        • Yeah. I suppose my life sometimes feels like trudging with purpose… or something like that. You don’t sound too excited about life not that I’m one to talk. Have you at least been keeping yourself occupied?

  2. Tim,

    “(1) Holding onto your suffering brings more suffering.”

    Suffering is just an experience. Like any experience, you can hold onto it or deny it or any number of other possibilities. When in the right mindset, I prefer to simply witness it.

    “(2) When you define yourself according to how much you’ve suffered, it becomes a contest to see who can hurt more and who can spew more blood on the next guy.”

    Sure, anything can be a contest. You can define yourself as being more together than others. Defining yourself according to any single experience can be problematic. We aren’t our experiences which includes the full spectrum from suffering to joy.

    “It becomes a cycle of emotional violence at a certain point, where suffering must be offloaded and shared with everyone around you, (but what if they’ve suffered more than you can imagine?) – either that, or you can let it wither on the vine.”

    Or it can simply be experienced. Both repressed and projected suffering can be emotional violence, but there is nothing fundamentally violent about the experience of suffering in and of itself.

    What if they’ve suffered more than you can imagine? Well, that is basically my point. You can only understand to a very limited degree the experience of others. This is why I was arguing against generalized statements.

    As for withering on the vine, I can’t say I disagree. Experiences come and go. The attitude I strive for is acceptance which is based in a sense of faith. To me, the desire to make suffering go away seems to miss the heart of the issue. However, my ability to articulate this understanding is minimal.

    “Heaven on earth, I believe, is perceptually possible.”

    Yes, this touches upon the heart of the issue. I guess it depends on what this means. I do sense something truly good in the world, but this deeper sense of goodness seems to me to be a goodness beyond the hopes and concepts of our normal experience. This goodness, as I intuit it, isn’t at odds with human suffering.

    “It, however, requires great discipline and unbounded joy given away freely to others with no expectation of reciprocation.”

    I’m not sure what to say to this. I’m not exactly sure what this means to you. And I don’t know your life experience. The words ‘discipline’ and ‘joy’ can mean many things to many people.

    I tend to equate discipline with effort. Opposite of this, I tend to equate heaven on earth as an insight received through grace.

    As for joy, I see it as just one extreme on a spectrum of emotions. I personally don’t find it helpful to say suffering isn’t real and joy is real. They’re both just emotions. On this issue, I’m attracted to a more Eastern attitude of neutral mindfulness combined with openminded curiosity.
    Anyways, this is just what makes sense to me based on my own experience and study, my own experimentation and practice. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then that is just the way it is.

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