Friday, July 1, 2016

In Search Of Suffering: An Off-Schedule, Offbeat Rumination

     Courtesy of the indispensable Glenn Reynolds, we have an article that has stimulated much thought:

     When I first started training for marathons a little over ten years ago, my coach told me something I’ve never forgotten: that I would need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but that skill, cultivated through running, would help me as much, if not more, off the road as it would on it.

     It’s not just me, and it’s not just running. Ask anyone whose day regularly includes a hard bike ride, sprints in the pool, a complex problem on the climbing wall, or a progressive powerlifting circuit, and they’ll likely tell you the same: A difficult conversation just doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. A tight deadline not so intimidating. Relationship problems not so problematic.

     Maybe it’s that if you’re regularly working out, you’re simply too tired to care. But that’s probably not the case. Research shows that, if anything, physical activity boosts short-term brain function and heightens awareness. And even on days they don’t train — which rules out fatigue as a factor — those who habitually push their bodies tend to confront daily stressors with a stoic demeanor. While the traditional benefits of vigorous exercise — like prevention and treatment of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and osteoporosis — are well known and often reported, the most powerful benefit might be the lesson that my coach imparted to me: In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering. [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     The emphasized sentence above is the one that got my gears grinding.

     Are we intended, by God or our natures, to avert “excess” comfort and to prefer to suffer? If so, how much comfort is “excess,” and in what venues does it “threaten?”

     Give that a few CPU cycles while I fetch more coffee.

     I’ve seen more than one paean to pain and suffering. Here are a couple of representative bits:

     “You’re used to looking forward to the end of work,” Mike said, looking over the formation of blowing Keldara. “For the beer at the end of the day of picking rocks. For the sun to fall on the harvesting or the last stand of wheat to cut and the party to follow. But a soldier cannot be looking forward to the end of work, for the end of pain. Your mind starts to focus on that and it will betray you. As you return from a mission, anticipating a beer and rest, you could be ambushed. You might be sent on another mission, and another and another. You cannot focus on rest, on peace, until you are at peace. You have to exist in a state of mind without a goal of the end of pain. You must learn to accept the pain, to revel in it, to make a brother of pain. To be a soldier is pain! It is suffering and loss and sacrifice. You must learn to pray for chaos and pain! This is one of the many things you’re going to have to learn if you want to be soldiers. And if you turn out to be lousy soldiers, which it looks like this morning, then I’ll just get some people that know how to do the damned job, to revel in the pain, and you can till the damned fields if that’s all you’re good for!” [John Ringo, Kildar]

     On the fortieth day and the two succeeding we were snowed in by a blizzard. During these long hours of lying blotto in the tent Estraven slept almost continuously, and ate nothing, though he drank orsh or sugar-water at mealtimes. He insisted that I eat, though only half-rations. “You have no experience in starvation,” he said.
     I was humiliated. “How much have you—Lord of a Domain, and prime minister—?”
     “Genry, we practice privation until we’re experts at it. I was taught how to starve as a child at home in Estre, and by the Handdarata in Rotherer Fastness. I got out of practice in Erhenrang, true enough, but I began making up for it in Mishnory....Please do as I say, my friend; I know what I’m doing.” [Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness]

     Her tutor woke her well before dawn. Patience felt the chill of the morning through her thin blanket, and her muscles were stiff from sleeping on a hard mat on the floor. Summer was definitely over, and she allowed herself to wish, however briefly, that the north-facing window of her room might be glazed—or at least shuttered—for the winter.
     It was all part of Father’s training, to harden and toughen her, to make her despise the luxuries of court and the people who lived for them. She assumed that Angel’s ungentle hand on her shoulder was part of the regimen. What, did I smile in my sleep? Did it look like my dreams were sweet? Thank you, Angel, for rescuing me before I was corrupted forever by some imaginary delight. [Orson Scott Card, Wyrms]

     Now, the above are snippets from three novels, and in the context of each a defensible rationale for the sentiments quoted is at hand, but the attitude – the absolute distrust of comfort, pleasure, and rest – can be found in many guises. It’s not natural, and it isn’t always occupational or situational.

     Some people hold, as a first principle, that suffering is to be consciously sought, and that comfort, pleasure, and rest are somehow wrong or sinful.

     I cannot agree:

     He's a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are "pleasures for evermore". Ugh! I don't think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific Vision. He's vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working, Everything has to be twisted before it's any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

     We are what we are because it is what God means us to be: creatures that pursue what we want through the use of evidence and reason. Pain and suffering indicate that something is wrong. They’re “Heads-Up” signals intended to get us to change our behavior. Only in uniquely special circumstances is it better to ignore or endure them.

     What does that imply for those who consciously seek out pain or suffering? If they’re not training for something, why are they doing it?

     This is part and parcel of my attitude toward much that clericalism has bequeathed to us. Over the years, religious clerics have repeatedly blustered at men to shun the pleasures of the world. They’ve sought to forbid virtually every pleasure or satisfaction known to Man. Some have even warned us about taking “too much pleasure” from lovemaking with our spouses. What conceivable chain of reasoning – what premise, or interpretation of a teaching of Christ – could possibly lead to such a proscription?

     How could such compulsory anti-hedonism be squared with what the Redeemer said to His followers:

     Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. [Matthew 11:28-30]

     Figure it out if you can. I cannot.

     I get into fairly frequent pissing contests with Christians – not all of them Presbyterians – who claim I’ve “perverted” or “misinterpreted” the Gospels. Not one has ever succeeded in showing me a clear error on my part. Christ’s words are recorded in a minimum of four places, and from the evidence He was entirely consistent with Himself. He forbade very little:

     And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]

     I don’t see a word in there about forsaking the comforts and pleasures of life, do you? But I’m given a lot of citations of other people, including from the epistles of ex-Pharisee Paul of Tarsus, who add their own prescriptions and proscriptions to Christ’s list above.

     If clerics of the Church had the authority to do that, that authority would be, of necessity, unbounded. It would be coextensive with that of God Himself...and that sort of clerical self-worship, I submit, constitutes a greater sin than any other.

     As I’ve already stated, and as is illustrated in the quotations in the second segment, there are contexts within which it is important to turn away from some comfort or pleasure. The context itself makes it vital, a matter of However, outside such a context, the laws written into our own natures should prevail. They impel us to work against pain and suffering: to alter ourselves and/or our contexts to relieve those warning signals and allow us a state of comfort and pleasure. No other interpretation of Natural Law can be defended on logical and evidentiary grounds.

     To close, allow me a few words on training for particular purposes.

     Success at a personally chosen quest can require you to train yourself to endure pain, suffering, and miscellaneous sorts of deprivation. Anyone who’s attempted to acquire athletic prowess will know this...and just remembering my days practicing my breaking stuff is making my elbow hurt. But our chosen purposes do not exempt us from either God’s laws or the foreseeable consequences of our actions. That which is implied by one’s choices is an integral part of those choices.

     Be certain you’re aware of the consequences of your chosen purposes and what you’ll do to pursue them. Be certain you’re willing to accept them. That’s part of every bargain you’ll ever make.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Adrienne said...

As Sister Wendy so aptly said regarding sex, "God wouldn't give you a toy and then tell you not to play with it."

Arthur said...

Masochism is an illness.

Pain and toil without purpose is just another indulgence.