Thursday, July 12, 2007

The nobility of suffering

Suffering is not, in and of itself, a noble thing.

In some cases, it can be noble. If it's for the purpose of benefiting others, like the sacrifices made by soldiers, firefighters, and other service organizations, then there is nobility in it. Those who willingly suffer to further a cause, perhaps civil rights activists, are also noble. People who do these things deserve recognition and gratitude for their sacrifices. Also, those whose suffering cannot be prevented deserve sympathy, and they can be counted as brave for their ability to take on life's basic challenges in the face of pain.

On the other hand, there is also pointless suffering, which people seem to think should get the same recognition and gratitude. This includes the self-martyred people who sigh, moan, and complain so that they can get attention, those who put themselves through the grind to have logo clothing and swanky cars, and those whose preventable suffering makes life more difficult for those around them. If you're too stubborn to break a pointless habit that creates more pain for you, you do not deserve a medal for your suffering. If you're too proud to admit that you might need help, and end up just making your health worse because of it, you're not being noble. And if you are suffering a painful condition, but you push yourself to work through the pain so you can buy yourself frivolities, then the frivolities are your reward--you do not have my sympathy or admiration.

Our culture puts a value on suffering for its own sake. Deny yourself food. Deny yourself sex. Wear uncomfortable shoes. Stand for painful hours on a hard floor doing a job that could be done just as well sitting. Stay in an abusive relationship with your spouse, boss, parents, whoever. This venration of misery can be traced back to religion, of course, but I also suspect that many people have forgotten how to be happy, and because of this, they cannot stand to see it in others. Have you ever been smiling or laughing, only to be met with a scowl from a complete stranger? Joy is regarded with suspicion, while despair is regarded as normal and unremarkable.

People get the idea that submitting themselves to hardship and anguish is admirable, and that permitting themselves to feel anything else is shameful. Consequently, they expect to be rewarded for the former, even if their doing so is completely avoidable and unnecessary. How do we break through this mentality and accept that it is okay to be happy? What can we do to promote an ideal of relieving pain and alleviating suffering?


LavaLady said...

This is thought provoking! I've been spending the past year and a half recovering from what I cheekily but honestly consider a nervous breakdown, and one of the main tenants of my recovery has been refusing to suffer needlessly. Unfortunately, that mostly means removing myself from outside sources of suffering, I'm still working on refusing to make myself suffer needlessly.

This idea means that I have been saying NO a lot. "No, I will not agree with you that my gaining weight means I'm less worthy", "No, in fact, this difficult decision *is* making the lives of those involved healthier and happier, not hurting them", "No, my illness does not make me a bad person", etc.

It's been great. I notice that weight loss messages are ostensibly about "health", but very often are about how denying yourself things (like basic acceptance) will lead you to a better place. The latest part of my journey has been to accept myself as a fatter person -and blessedly it's been opening up my mind and heart to accept all of myself.

It's not just weight loss, of course - I've really been noticing how we as women are conditioned to expect less of others (we do the cleaning, cooking, caregiving), and less of ourselves (we always need improving), and suffering is a way to show other people that we are taking less than our share - of space, of dignity, of life. That's terribly sad.

I'm sorry to ramble - I've spent the past hour or so reading your blog and enjoying it! My head is filled with things to say.

RioIriri said...

Ramble away! I encourage it. I do the same in other blogs; I'm excessively wordy :)

I also have a livejournal that has more personal stuff and less well-written material. Also, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

"It's been great. I notice that weight loss messages are ostensibly about "health", but very often are about how denying yourself things (like basic acceptance) will lead you to a better place."

Indeed! They seem to focus on what will make you physically healthier (and they're wrong about that anyway!), but seem to have no concern about whether you are happier!

I firmly believe that the quality of one's life should come before everything else, including health. That might seem paradoxical, but if the pursuit of bodily health comes at the expense of the joy of living, then what have you really gained?

And, that doesn't just apply to the fat situation. If I am told that my life depends on an excruciating regimen of medical treatment that will take up the entirety of the remainder of my life, or I could let things happen naturally and live relatively pain-free for the remainder, then the former option will not be my preference in most circumstances.

Strangely, I cannot honestly think of any medical condition that would require a treatment of daily, unending torture, except for the "o" word. Yes, doctor, I'm fat, and okay, you say it's going to kill me. Tell you what, we can make a wager on it. If my being fat kills me, then you get ten bucks. If your medical malpractice of telling me to lose weight for every problem from a sore knee to a gunshot wound ends up killing me, then my family gets every asset you own, plus your stupid fat-hating head on a platter. That's fair, right?

:) You're not the only wordy one, I suppose!