The Bread Will Be Baked, Part III – What’s So Binary About Happiness and Suffering?

[Please read Part I and Part II of this discussion, if you haven’t already]It isn’t so much that toiling to bake bread is better than chasing easy happiness. It’s more that the satisfaction of baking is a better, more durable kind of happiness than the effortless pleasure of acquiring free bread. But the baking effort isn’t suffering. “Suffering” is toiling to bake the bread and then having lightning strike your kitchen, ruining the bread, along with all your appliances and your hands (thereby destroying your ability to bake ever again).I will concede this much: perpetual contentment is not very enlightening and may even be stupefying, whereas a certain amount of struggle teaches us things. Note the modifiers “perpetual” and “a certain amount of” in that statement. Extreme deprivation is MUCH worse than extreme contentment. The latter may dull natural curiosity, drive, or intellect, but the former will destroy them. Also, a general wellbeing (or even extreme privilege) need not imply “extreme contentment” and it allows the possibility for voluntarily assuming some arduous, “character-building” task (not all fortunate people eschew hard work and discipline; in fact, the smarter ones don’t; Gary, whose views sparked off this series of posts, is case in point). By contrast, extreme poverty (or oppression or illness), doesn’t allow for adjusting one’s life to the optimal level of “hardship” (or “effort”). Maybe all this is really just about choice?

Bottom line: all happiness isn’t all good and all pain isn’t all bad.

Truth is never binary.

[Wait, did I just stumble into a Godelian paradox. . . ?]

At any rate, I also concede that enduring adversities can sometimes give us unique insights and other intangible gains. But the cold, hard fact is that – contrary to the adage – such adversities more frequently weaken us in tangible ways. If you have a serious illness, you know that constantly battling your own tissues and pain receptors absolutely cuts into your physical and intellectual stamina and focus, and makes you irritable and impatient, all to the detriment of performance. If you’ve known poverty or isolation, you know that your pecuniary and social circumstances can lead repeatedly to failures that contribute nothing to intellectual or moral growth.

Readers, please ask yourselves honestly if you haven’t experienced instances of crushing defeat, whose rewards – if any – were vastly outweighed by their deleterious effects. If not, you’re lucky. There are those who aren’t.

Yes, people do manage to accomplish things despite severe hardships, but it’s largely because other factors have mitigated them, not so much because of the hardships themselves. Factors such as truly extraordinary personal qualities, unexpected strokes of luck, or the kindness of others. Truth is, contra Horatio Alger (and other popular mythologies romanticizing misfortune), the accomplishments of those who have to fight extraordinary odds are usually fewer and much less dazzling than similarly gifted and driven people who don’t. [Malcolm Gladwell makes a convincing and empirically substantiated argument for what I just said in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” which I will review sometime in January, so please tune in! On a related note: I promised several days ago that I will talk about poverty and meritocracy at some point; the Gladwell book should provide nice context.]

I contend that even the fact that we learn from our struggles has more to do with the ability to learn than with struggle itself. That’s why struggle is worthwhile only if and when we have the capacity to triumph over it or at least to withstand it without permanently damaging ourselves. Insurmountable struggle doesn’t yield any good at all.

Finally, I want to know how an apologist for suffering applies his philosophy. Listening to Gary and his similarly minded generational cohorts (some of whom write seriously about this stuff) suggests to me that they almost entirely miss the fact that this has implications beyond things like altruism and communitarianism. It has implications about how one lives one’s own life.

More on that tomorrow, in the fourth and final chapter of my breaking bread with Gary.

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One thought on “The Bread Will Be Baked, Part III – What’s So Binary About Happiness and Suffering?

  1. The first one to point out the embarrassing spelling error that was in the first paragraph (before I corrected it) gets to be “Reader of the Month.”I’m trying to gauge how many of you have subscribed to my blog! That’s why I misspelled it in the first place — yeah, right!Anyway, full disclosure: I took the liberty to tweak a couple of other things when I corrected the error. Not that there might not be others — an editor friend of mine says he almost ALWAYS finds an error or two in any book or article that he reads, so what hope does a half-baked blogger like me have?

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