(From Portrait of the Artist as a Young Women 2007ish)
In the beginning, I didn’t know suffering, only the lightness of moment, that eternal simultaneous descent and rise of sensation. My mother’s warm milk, the cold of tile. When dropping my rattle onto the pavement from my mother’s lap I clenched my fingers and tears stuck to my lips, but I did not think to form the sentence, that declaration: I am sad. This is sorrow.
There was no “I” at all. There was no separate self. All simply was. All was rattle. All was no rattle. All was tears and fists. All was my mom shushing shhh shhhh don’t cry don’t cry. There was no concept “I” so there was no suffering. The paucity of my language created for a world of immediacy. I need not try to transcend suffering, because it did not exist.
In time my skin showed itself a certain boundary between myself and the “other”. My hand touched another. That hand either pulled away or remained close. Other children entered or exited, behaved in ways I did not understand. I had a name. I was an I.
I made a space for suffering to catalogue my pain, to place those things I did not wish or will. Suffering took on dull tones of separation. It reproached me even as my father left, kissing my forehead, driving away. My face in the window felt like melting glass. I was a “me” to leave.
One afternoon, I sat by my mother watching my favorite show of numbers and letters, songs I sometimes danced to. My mother’s hand rested on my thigh and I fiddled with her fingers, her wedding band. An advertisement with a sad melody showed children my age crying. The children’s bellies swelled. Gray dust streaked their faces.
“These children are suffering,” my mother said. I didn’t understand.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’re hungry,” my mother explained.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’re suffering.”
With Eve and her apple, the Old Testament attributes suffering to sin; and in this way, sin and suffering were conceptually married. The pair could be spotted dancing together at parties, walking their dog through the park, holding hands in the check out line at the natural living store. They were a happy pair, one begat the other, until materialism, science, and a guy named Job came between them.
Job suffered profoundly. He lost his family and possessions. His body corrupted with pain and illness. His friends judged him: if he was running around with suffering, than he must be courting sin as well; but it turns out Job did not know sin. He was a righteous man and undeserving of misfortune. The advent of Job was the advent of a new conscious pairing: suffering and righteousness.
In the end, suffering ennobled Job because it tested him, it developed him further, it brought him closer to God. Jesus asks his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, and to follow Him. This request, a predictive reference to His crucifixion, is no small thing. Christ’s slow procession along the Via Dolorosa was nothing but an excruciating trod towards death.
At the point of taking up His own literal cross, Christ suffered grave wounds. He had lost such blood, he was unable to walk erect, the heavy splintered beam breaking through his shoulder’s muscle. Christ not only endured the epitome of physical suffering, solidifying the relationship between purity and suffering, but asks His disciples to do the same.
In pursuit of holiness, saints and other ascetics practice mortification of the flesh and other voluntary suffering.
They welcome suffering as to:
- imitate Christ
- resist mortal sins caused by the nature of the body
- rely completely on the salvation, strength, and mercy of God
- progress spiritually
- embody a sacrifice to God
- liberate themselves from the body.
Suffering is therefore a vehicle, a bitter sweet torture, stretching one out, pulling one’s limbs, muscles, sinew snapping taut and tauter making space for all that is holy, good, and beautiful. We complain when we suffer and yet there are some of us who cannot escape our suffering, we hold onto it, or rather surrender to its hold on us.
Nietzsche refers to the discipline of suffering, of great suffering, attributing to it all of man’s enhancements. From the tension of this stretching suffering imposes on to the unhappy soul, can arise strength, inventiveness and courage.
And while heady romanticists like Nietzsche, Dosteovsky and Allendey applaud the slow misery of internal(and external) pain, there exists an obvious amount of bright-eyed rationalists who differ. Suffering is pain and pain is unpleasant. Logically, suffering exists as an unwanted phenomena. Who would prefer sadness to elation? Who, in a healthy state of mind would choose misery over happiness?
The passion of the contemporary abolitionist is, like his or her ancestors, centered in liberation, but instead of liberating a literal slave from his or her confederate master, today’s abolitionist seeks to salvage the sufferer from his suffering. The Abolitionist Society is a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by Jaime Savage, David Pearce, Pablo Stafforini and Sean Henderson seeking to eradicate all suffering not through poetry or speech, not through beauty, food, or medicine, but through the now exponential advances of biotechnology.
By way of genetic engineering, scientists claim to be approaching a place of power over sadness, in that by eliminating the toxic alleles rumored responsible for wide spread suffering, by unraveling the molecular substrates of emotion, biotechnology, allied to nanomedicine can conceivably control the distribution of world happiness and misery. Traditional casuistry will lose relevance as scientists master the brain’s reward centers, ensuring everyone a birth into life long bliss. Substrates of suffering and depression will be outright abolished, and we will reflect from our utopia back onto all our primitive sadness.
Reading of this group’s ideals, faced with the Miss America wishes and noble selfless gestures made by charitable organizations and churches, I’ve had to ask myself what makes me human? It is not without an embarrassed rush of shame that I confess, that maybe, perhaps, I’m not so quick to relinquish my pain. While these utilitarian biotechnologists mean well, they only want what’s best after all, I cannot help but bristle, but wrap a protecting forearm over my chest as if to protect what’s buried deep within, as if it were a physical globe made of black blood and space swelling within my chest cavity at times so big I could blink and see it behind my eyes. Perhaps it is not the suffering I covet, but rather the capacity for suffering, which inevitably enriches my existence. It heightens my day-to-day experience. It produces a shadow for all my light.
Suffering maintains the intensity of my private emotional world. It saves me from mere commonplace. It is familiar and still rich.
Is it in pursuit of God that man endures suffering or in pursuit of suffering man endures God? If I had the power to abolish all human suffering, would I do it? It frightens me that I hesitate.
But if we look for truths in our mythologies, we see the origin of consciousness out of pain, and from consciousness, a new capacity for experience. Again and again we see suffering create consciousness. We step on a nail and reflexively draw back our foot, the sharp pain causing us awareness of the inside of one heel.
My suffering is a right–A wrong right.