Monday, August 16, 2010

Touching Stoves

Eli quotes Andrew Sullivan on the way Christopher Hitchens is handling his ongoing struggle with cancer:

Christianity's radical claim is that it is in suffering alone that we approach the truth about our ultimate condition, just as Jesus' intense suffering on the Cross makes sense only as an act of God's solidarity with us in this mortal, existential panic. The position you take on this cannot be reduced to an argument. It is much deeper than that.

I revere reason and respect atheism. (And I think the writer who most taught me about the need for mutual respect between atheists and believers was an atheist, Albert Camus.) Watching my friend die in this remarkable fashion is as persuasive an argument for atheism as I can imagine. Hitch is dying as he lives - with integrity and passion. But for me, it is the fear too that informs us, the dread and the pain and the loneliness of dying and suffering.
After which he cites an opposing passage by Ophelia Benson:
The devout think that humans are at their best when they are damaged: weak, suffering, miserable. The undevout think we are at our best when we are at our best – strong, healthy, functioning well, not afraid or depressed or flattened by grief.

Well which would it be? Is a sick, deaf, lame, tired dog a dog at its best or is it a dog that is not even itself anymore – that is no more than a tube to ingest and exrete food?

It’s the same for humans. I’ll come over all Aristotelian here and say that humans are at their best when they are best at doing what humans do – talking, thinking, laughing, making, designing, inventing, cooking, dancing, singing, and a thousand things more. That is humans at their best – when they’re living up to their potential.
After some discussion of Sullivan's and Benson's musings, Eli concludes with questions:
Obviously I have my own guesses about which of these authors has come closer to the truth, but what do you think? Is there a way to believe in the value of suffering without losing one's bearings? Can we hold at once that suffering is the "ultimate condition" for humans and that there is no (or no significant) value to be found in suffering?
At the risk of getting too pat I answer as follows.

I find significant truth in both Sullivan's and Benson's views. In agreement with Sullivan, suffering is a foundational component of the human condition, by which I mean it is something that every person experiences in varying degrees and kinds. The recognition that a being has suffered and is bound to suffer more is identical with the recognition of his/her personhood; a being capable of suffering is a being with rights that merit recognition. This has to extend to non-human animals inasmuch as they, too, suffer.

Suffering's universality can be the ground from which to erect laws, rules, social arrangements, and institutions that tend to eliminate or minimize it; or, if you like, it can be the measure of all such systems. We can know a law, rule, or arrangement is unjust if it produces unmerited and unjustifiable suffering. If we care about justice, we have to keep an eye on suffering.

In disagreement with Sullivan and in agreement with Benson, there is no need to warp the vivid reality of suffering into claims about "God's solidarity with us." We know our own suffering and that is all the validation we need, i.e., adding a god's suffering to the world's history doesn't gain anything we can't already clearly perceive or reliably deduce about the nature of things. The reality and universality of suffering is directly perceptible to anyone who will look, listen, and reflect -- knowing the truth of suffering requires the "revelation" of living in the world, and nothing more.

Moreover, and closer to Benson's point, we have to be extremely cautious about ennobling pain. Yes, we can learn from pain -- a thousand brightly-colored warning signs count for less than one instance of touching a hot stove -- and since we will experience it no matter what we do, we will be wise to try to learn what we can from it, if not in keeping with the Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living, then at least in light of the great Bushism:
There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.
The obvious risk is that others will adopt these ideas and decide what lessons we should learn, and then go about imposing suffering to impart them -- or, what is barely better, decide what lessons we ought to gain from the suffering that befalls us from another source.

This, too, is inevitable: one term for it is education, another is oppression. Judgment and compassion have to referee which is which, where it sits along the continuum, and where to draw the boundaries. This judgment is difficult and endlessly contentious.

As we watch Christopher Hitchens -- or someone closer, maybe ourselves -- face the reality of suffering, including but not limited to the imminence of death, we should already know that a certain kind of insight does uniquely derive from that experience. He is in the process of touching a hot stove; this is just true. That doesn't automatically authenticate what he says, nor does it negate, in even the slightest way, the insights he offered while still in full vigor, when pain and death felt as remote to him as it ever does for anyone. There is a clarity of mind that comes from not having one's hand resting against the hot stove -- this, too, is just true. As I say, the judgments on this are difficult, and the formulas -- pain is noble and enlightening, pain is ignoble and obscuring -- too tidy to produce reliable answers.


Sheldon said...

Suffering sucks!

Celebrate suffering? No thanks!

Dale said...

Sheldon, when possible, I prefer to learn from the suffering of others. ;-)