The Bread Will Be Baked, Part IV – Who Should Suffer?

[Please read Part I, Part II, and Part III of this discussion, if you haven’t already]

Gary, the apologist for suffering, has never seen a day of it in his privileged, healthy, well-heeled, young life. (I’m not being harsh, he fully acknowledges this – he’s a person of integrity).

I would never begrudge Gary a moment of bliss in his enormously charmed life, but it’s a little hard for me to swallow lectures on “hardship” from him. Not nearly as hard as it would be for someone in Somalia or Burma to hear a clever argument about how their oppression and impoverishment have some abstract value either for them or for civilization generally. Gary would never say something so uncharitable to someone (whom he knows to be) in the throes of a wretched life, but I have to ask, if you think it, then what’s the moral justification for condescendingly holding your tongue? Is it just that it makes you uncomfortable to demonstrate a cruel disregard for a particular person’s pain? Does that mean that while his abject misery has some value, your discomfort at being correctly understood by him has none? If, on the other hand, your reason for holding your tongue is that you really don’t see the value in that particular person’s suffering, then I must ask: what good is a philosophical position if you can’t commit to its concrete application when push comes to shove?

More importantly, would you choose it for yourself? Any praise of “suffering” frankly seems hollow if you don’t – at the very least – actively seek out hardship and reject the pleasure, privilege, and ease that your own life has afforded. Why did you attend a prestigious school? Wouldn’t it be better for your character to study somewhere that didn’t practically guarantee a smooth transition to the academic career you are trying to develop? Why do you travel to beautiful and historic places? Why do you read books you enjoy? Wouldn’t deprivation be more enlightening? Why are you dating a smart, beautiful woman that you like? Wouldn’t it be better to be with someone insufferable? Or better yet, wouldn’t celibacy and loneliness be more virtuous? Unless you’re willing to actually undergo some pain – some real pain (talk to me if you don’t know what that means) – then no intelligent adult will take your “pro-suffering” philosophy seriously, no matter how brilliantly you articulate it (unless you can make a case for why you’re exempt).

The gestaltic “bread” of human civilization will be baked one way or other regardless of the joy and pain of existence. But I still want to know, from those who have something to say about it, how do you justify participating in the baking and eating while saying of others who are deprived of such things that there is “good” in that deprivation?

For the record, I’m not one to deny anybody a position on things beyond their personal experience. After all, I’m writing a book (in part) about slavery. And we don’t require oncologists to be afflicted with tumors. But I’m not exalting slavery to something “good” (even as I exalt the human spirit in those who, despite something like slavery, managed to find something “good” in life) and oncologists don’t usually rhapsodize about the beauty of cancerous tumors because they manifest the resilience of life by refusing to die! [If any do, hopefully they don’t expect the sentiment to be taken as anything more than a silly little expression born of a fleeting poetic impulse; and in any case I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable letting them treat me for tumors and I’m guessing you wouldn’t either.]

If, on the other hand, the real argument is more anti-altruism than pro-suffering, then I wish people would have the self awareness and intellectual (and political) courage to make that argument and admit the distinction.

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One thought on “The Bread Will Be Baked, Part IV – Who Should Suffer?

  1. A couple of related quotes: “What doesn’t kill you only delays the inevitable” (provenance unknown). “What doesn’t kill you makes you kinder” – I actually wrote that one in my fiction, there are strands of truth in that, despite the thrust of what I’m arguing here, but like I said, the truth is “never” binary!

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