A brave new world without suffering

Being a healthy and lucky person, the greatest physical suffering I’m forced to deal with is a monthly stomach cramp. I’ve had no serious illnesses or injuries, and the stomach cramp, while horrid, is simply the unfortunate byproduct of having healthy and functional internal organs, so I shouldn’t really complain (although I do). At any rate, this temporary incapacitation is easily remedied by washing four pills down with a strong coffee; job done.

It does worry me, however, how little I appear to be able to deal with what is a relatively low level of physical suffering. In fairness, I think it is less the pain itself than the ensemble of accompanying symptoms (general unwellness and inability to regulate temperature), and the fact of having to deal with them in an office with a schizophrenic thermostat while wearing a pencil skirt, that makes me reach for the Nurofen. And yet I do wonder how I will deal with things like childbirth, and old age.

Mental pain is a different beast. Grief, loneliness, the non-clinical depressive feelings of un-motivation and futility are not emotions that we can currently medicate away. Not so for the inhabitants of Huxley’s Brave New World. They have available to them a drug called soma, which they are encouraged to take to remedy even the slightest dip in happiness levels, curing jealousy, misery, even mere glumness. Yet the regular trips to a soma-induced happy place do not procure a better future for humankind or much that is particularly praiseworthy; removing negative emotions, all the drug does is lull its users into a soporific and stultified ‘holiday from the facts’, creating ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’.

Why is taking soma to avoid suffering vilified as a denial of reality? Partly because the consequences of fear, frustration, disappointment, and loneliness are not all bad. If nothing else, they are effective drivers of improvement in our lives, as we seek to remedy the causes of the emotion; they can drive us to alleviate others’ suffering (e.g. by developing new medicine or social policies); they can force us to realise something profound about ourselves, can force us to become more empathetic, patient, tolerant, etc. I think even grief and depressiveness can teach us something. Would we want not to grieve for a loved one? Without the possibility of sadness at their loss, would the feeling of love even be the same? If nothing else, suffering is a normal part of the human experience, without which human life, our reality, would not be what it is. So while I’m quite happy to pop a paracetamol for a trivial physical ailment, I’m not sure I would want to take a mood-altering drug for things like a bout of break-up sadness, stress at work or bereavement.

While taking a pill for a bad mood might feel a step too far, it’s fair to say the avoidance of suffering is a pursuit we engage in constantly, and running away from pain and towards comfort powerfully influences our decision-making. This is true even if we know that suffering can help us. It’s instinctive, the mental reflex that pulls our hand from the fire before we even feel its effects, but is it right?

In Christian ethics, for example, we are not allowed to inflict suffering, and actions that might have both a good and a bad effect are only permissible under certain circumstances (think about the discussion around treatment of ectopic pregnancy, for example). And yet we have to endure, perhaps be happy about, our own suffering, and even inflict it upon ourselves: for example by fasting, or taking correct decisions that make us unhappy. If we’re happy to starve our bodies to feel the spiritual effects afterwards, then aren’t we treating ourselves in a more utilitarian manner than we treat our neighbour? And yet we must also love our neighbour as ourselves, which must either mean we don’t spare the rod, thus spoiling the child, or that Ash Wednesday is not an excuse to deprive ourselves of vital nourishment.

What about God? He watches us suffer without alleviating our pain, and deliberately created us under conditions that would mean we would necessarily suffer (period pain the flipside of healthy reproductive organs; volatile volcanoes the flipside or necessary condition of an earth that supports life). This fact discomfits many a New Atheist, but I find these objections at least in part answered in this sort of way:

“God, our Father, is like a loving parent who agrees to subject his child to a regimen of chemotherapy to cure a cancer, though the child does not see the need for the chemotherapy, because the child does not see the cancer or its danger […] The parent is thinking, “If only you could see the danger of this cancer, you would understand that I am subjecting you to this painful treatment only because I love you, and want you to live.” (source)

Yet – if it’s a moral absolute that the means don’t justify the ends, how indeed can it be the case that a perfect God allows or creates the possibility of evil full stop (even if evil has good effects)? My rationalisation of my own sufferings may or may not work on this macro scale, but I at least entertain the possibility that only when hampered with the deep gamut of physical and mental suffering that’s currently available to us do we have a chance of reaching the heights of union with him of our own free will; i.e. great good is only an existential possibility when great bad is also available; without it, the moral and emotional landscape is just a sad unvaried prairie. I’m not sure I know the answers to my many questions, but I know I’ve asked why he couldn’t have tweaked the conditions slightly such that it was just a tiny bit easier.

Brave New World has one real resistance fighter, the ‘Savage’ brought in to encounter and throw critical light on civilisation (there’s the ‘estrangement’ technique again). Here is an excerpt from a conversation between the Savage and one of the World Controllers who enforces the new order:

“We prefer to do things comfortably.” [Controller]

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.” [Savage]

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

We also prefer to do things comfortably. The welfare state, the safe space movement, painkillers, binge-drinking, flexible working, are all trends of the last century designed to maximise the warm feel-good fuzzies. But even with all these evasive possibilities available to us, it’s worth remembering that a life of suffering is not a life wasted or in vain. Pope Benedict XVI famously said ‘You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness’. He seems to have an unusual supporter in Nietszche:

“Well-being […] – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible […] The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?” (quoted here)

I’ve talked before about how desire drives us forward. Perhaps it is not just desire but suffering, whether just or not, that repulses from painful situations or propels us to improve on mediocrity. We must remember, in our low moments, that without it we are the blind, unresistant and shallow soma-drones of Huxley’s dystopia.

And now I’m going to crawl out of my warm cosy bed to make myself a nice cup of tea and ponder the painfulness of life.

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