We all know that the pain of injury or sickness drives protection and healing. Psychological pain is different, providing a reason to change behaviour. By contrast, anguish that arises from a loss that cannot be retrieved, or that awful tension from having to do something we know is a good idea, but that distresses us, is harder to grasp. What good comes from it? If the answer is no good at all, then why do we suffer?
Imagine a butterfly, partially stuck in its crystal-clear chrysalis, struggling to get a final leg free. This type of question came up amongst a group of us. It split the group. Do you see a moral imperative to intervene? Do you leave the insect to its fate? What if this were an earthquake victim trapped beneath rubble? Would this generate different feelings and actions and if so, why?
Empathy drives the desire to help those with whom we suffer in kind, through observation and because of our own past experiences. But then again, how much intervention is a good thing? And does it matter if we impose action without permission? Perhaps it depends on the circumstance.
There is one view that much of what we see as suffering is needless; a by-product of tensions between third parties that might be addressed in other ways and that triggers a feeling of caring about the helpless. The entire middle east seems to have been splattered with bombs for decades, as ideologies battle for control, with very little to show for the altercations except collateral damage: blameless victims in the wrong place when disaster strikes.
Another view, one shown by the mindset that leaves the insect in its personal battle, is summarised as 'survival of the fittest'. This is not exactly what Charles Darwin had in mind, but it has become a meme to describe the winnowing out those who deserve to be here from those who don't. Walking past involves letting nature take its course.
Alternatively, an element of punishment creeps in. Some religious cast systems see misfortune as payment for unremembered crimes against others in a past life, or at least as a case of getting what is deserved. Not only is there no reason to intervene but to do so would destroy the lessons being learnt and cause further suffering in future. Whereas for others, the cast system is a way of life into which people are born; one that is not examined but just accepted. Either way it is a rule to be implemented or endured.
If the thought of unnecessary hardship has you feeling frustrated or angry you are not alone. Psychological suffering is tied to a sense of fairness - the desire to correct a situation so that it aligns with how we want it to play out. We are rather good at sensing wrongness, based on a well-being radar, that affects the way we shape our values. But could the intensity of suffering that is felt be tied not only to the degree of wrongness perceived, but also the sense that we lack the ability to correct it quickly, easily or ethically?
What are we to make of this? Certainly, there would be little change in life if suffering were not treated as a stimulus for modification or adaptation that can be achieved. But suffering that seems to have no physical way out? Perhaps there is another avenue for relief in such circumstances.
A study that looked at the responses of Buddhist meditators showed that they developed an ability to uncouple negative emotional reactions from decision-making; an approach that physically changed patterns in the brain. When space is created between emotion and observation, awareness and control can re-emerge. Meditation practices are said to enhance this awareness of separation, called meta-awareness, dissociation or deconstruction.
With such distancing comes a reduction in ego and a calmer state of mind and body. Additionally, such an approach does not diminish kindness, which drives behaviour through compassion (rather than anguish).
As an additional thought, if we travel through life with a knee-jerk reaction to suffering, primarily addressing only what hurts, do we lose sight of possibilities that might steer society to a different, more pleasant destination? Edward De Bono wrote about thinking in an interesting way. In his early work, found in his book called Parallel Thinking, he suggests that instead of arguing over and choosing between known possibilities we set our sights on constructing new ones based on ideals. This new endpoint may then be used to map a path back to the present, to show us how to get there.
Could taking this approach allow us to dream beyond arrangements we accept as normal or our only option, but that constantly throw up the need to suffer as part of the process or endpoint? What might such a future look like?
Till next time – B.W. Cribb