Monday, February 25, 2013

800 Words: The Productivity of Suffering Part 1

There’s a long list of people who deserve severe beatings in this world. But at the forefront of that list is those among you who welcome misfortune because it’s something from which you can learn. Well,… yes, no doubt we can all learn from our misfortunes. Among other things, we can learn that misfortune sucks and there’s no way to extinguish its occurrence.

And yet there is another side to misfortune, one whose importance you often exaggerate, and nearly as often to pernicious ends, but nonetheless your point is impossible to refute.  And that point is simple: if a new advantage to life is to take wing, something else must wilt for the advantage to thrive.  To dumb it down still further – things change.

The rest of us should not be blamed for being fearful of change. Change is the single most terrifying word in any language, a state of existence for which living things have been biologically conditioned to resist for billions of years. We resist change for the simplest of reasons – change might kill us, and often does. Short of death, change is the deadliest disease to befall the face of the Universe since The Big Bang. Not all change will kill us, and some of it blesses us beyond imagining. But it is that very unpredictability of change which so terrifies us. Change is a certainty of existence more inevitable than death, and often far more anxiety provoking.

Even if every disaster in our lives does not herald a new triumph, every triumph must grow from a state of disaster. A hero must rise high so he may fall, and an underdog must start low so he may rise.

But it is only a conservative who automatically equates disaster to change. Not a conservative in the political sense – since political conservatives can sometimes be the most radical of all change agents; rather, conservatives in the sense of how we ought to live. Sometimes these ‘life’ conservatives view change as a disaster because the quality of their great lives would suffer immeasurably, but in many cases, these conservatives are their own best jailers – trapping themselves in comforts and triumphs so much less than what their rewards could be. Yet it can’t be denied, these conservatives have a point. Considering how easily change can (and has) lead to still greater suffering, perhaps it’s best to settle for the small consolations one has and not upset the established order of things.

And yet, what about we (The Royal ‘We’?) in the world whose consolations are clearly not large enough?

But before we go any further, I suppose it must be asked: What is ‘large enough?’ After a certain point, being upset that some people have better lives than you is little more than ‘Rage of the Entitled.’ To give the most obvious example, how can an upper middle class kid from suburban America whose grandparents survived a catastrophe during which their death was almost guaranteed yet flourished in a new country as few ever could in the old one ever be less than joyful at his lot in life? Particularly since so many billions would sell their souls to start life with his advantages. And yet, what if that very prosperity becomes a gold-barred prison from which there is no escape?

If this is the way he sometimes feels, then he’s hardly alone. History is packed to the brim with prosperous nations who felt the need to blow up their blessings, as though the Promised Land at which they arrived was nothing but a broken promise. The Romantics of 1848 started a revolution with the express purpose of blowing up the post-Napoleonic stability. 10 million people died in the Napoleonic Wars, and yet it was the prosperity of peacetime that followed which planted a wish in people to overthrow their greatest achievements. Or why did the first European generation who ever knew a lifetime’s peace rebel against their good fortune by involving themselves in World War I for no good reason  – a war that caused 37 million casualties, or nearly 100 million if you count the Spanish Flu which broke out in its wake; or what about the ‘Baby Boomers’ who blew up the achievements of ‘Greatest Generation’ in the 1960’s? Technically, to compare the casualty list from the 1960’s revolts to World War I is ridiculous. And yet the effect of the 1960’s was to overthrow the New Deal Liberal order and allow it to be replaced with 40 years of conservative governance in which all the goals of the revolutionaries were put still further back. It was no more rational a rebellion than anything in 1848 or World War I, and yet people decided that their prosperity simply wasn’t good enough. Were these simply rebellions of entitlement, or is it part of human nature to smash something that’s too good?

When humans achieve a better state of living, they can’t help but aspire to a state still greater. The poor man imagines a full belly, the rank-and-file soldier an era of peace, but the prosperous man can only yearn for more prosperity. And because prosperity endows those who have it with greater opportunities for leisure time, their yearnings become that much more obsessive.

But prosperity is always relative. The post-WWII prosperity of the United States was built on the sacrifices of the Soviet Union, who lost 27 million people (compared to America’s 405,000) in what the Soviet Union termed The Great Patriotic War. When soldiers returned to America triumphant, it was only the white soldiers who experienced the greatest benefits of the postwar boom. The GI Bill created a new middle class by paying for the educations of 51 percent of World War II veterans who otherwise would never have gone to college. And yet until Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, Black veterans would never have been accepted at any college but an all-black. And in 1950, only 37 percent of American women attended any form of college during their lives.

Prosperity is only a condition for those who benefit from it. Perhaps those born into prosperity should be forgiven more than they generally are if they think they’re giving back to the less fortunate in ways that are entirely narcissistic – like protests which set back the causes they promote, or displays of solidarity which 99.99999 % of the world’s less fortunate will neither see nor hear about, or expensive charity fundraisers in which the entertainment costs as much as will ever be donated to charity.

And yet, dear reader, though you live a life of stability and outward contentment, you persist in the idea that your life is not good enough and that some goal at the end of the road is the Holy Grail which shall obviate all those intense yearnings to which you are subject – and rather than improve the lives of those who suffer more than you, you have a natural urge to glorify them… Whether in the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Social Progress, the most valued person is the one whose suffering is the greatest. The mourners shall be comforted, the hungry and thirsty shall be filled, meek shall inherit the earth, and the poor’s is the very Kingdom of Heaven. Unless…of course… the suffering of the mourners, the hungry, the meek, or the poor is occurring too close to your blessings, in which case your natural urge is to do everything you can to distance them from yourself, as the nearness of their suffering invites the possibility that their suffering may invade your joy and bring down the quality of your life to their level.

And yet, perhaps, you should not be so keen to dismiss those plebes surrounding you with saliva dripping from their mouths who wander into cafeterias with shopping bags screaming about socialism. There is a chance, however unlikely, that they are a higher form of life than you. Of course they’re probably not, but there is that small chance that you’re going to learn more from them than they ever could from you – and that doubt should gnaw at you, even if I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. The people with the greatest suffering are the ones who will be the most solicitous of a different solution to their problems, and will therefore develop mechanisms to think more critically, act more boldly, and feel more sensitively. A small percentage of those outcasts, whose presence upon the world stage you glorify even though you’d never want to have lunch with them, will completely change the curvature of the Earth. The rest will in all likelihood continue their suffering until their dying day, with no relief to the omnipresently correct thought that they've experienced such black tribulation to no justifiable end. 

No comments:

Post a Comment