In centuries gone by the best you could hope for in the case of an aching tooth would be that someone would yank it out, but thanks to modern medicine we can detect cavities and fill them before they start to cause any pain at all. Of course, the drilling of the tooth itself is painful, so you can have your tooth numbed with an injection. Someone jabbing a sharp needle into your gums isn’t a walk in the park either, so you can have some topical gel applied before the shot.
Just to recap: you get a numbing gel to take away the pain of the injection which in turn numbs the tooth to avoid the pain of the drill which in turn fixes the tooth before it can start to seriously ache. That’s a triple-layer pain-mitigation strategy.
Of course I took the topical gel and the shot. All else being equal, I’m definitely a fan of less pain rather than more pain. But I also wondered if we’ve reached a point in our society where we are so good at avoiding pain and suffering that we’ve come to view them as exotic. As defects than can be eliminated. As aberrant rather than as uncomfortable but necessary aspects of a meaningful existence.
The Son of Man hath descended below them all.
Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122:8)
Health officials assure Americans that the terrifying Ebola outbreak in West Africa is no threat to the United States in part because “Americans [do not] bury their own dead family members or friends, as some residents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea must do with Ebola victims.” (Washington Post) In Thailand the job of responding to auto accidents often falls on private volunteers known as bodysnatchers:
Unlike the UK or US, Thailand operates on a two-tier emergency support system, sending out volunteers, or ‘basic teams’, to accident or crime scenes first, and only then an advanced life-support ambulance if needed. These ‘basic teams’ provide a vital service and account for about 60% of the emergency cases Bangkok’s hospitals see every year. Most Thais believe that helping others – be it the injured or dead – allows one to earn karmic merit. Here we spend the night with a Noppadon, one of Bangkok’s many volunteer body-collectors – also known as bodysnatchers. (The Guardian)
The treatment of death is just another example to show how completely those of us who live in the First World have sealed ourselves off from the harsher realities of mortality. We don’t bury our own dead, we don’t rescue our own wounded, we don’t tend to our own sick. We don’t even hunt or butcher our own meat. Our relationship to death is pretty similar to the stereotypical Victorian attitude about sex: at once repressive and obsessive. Meanwhile, we segregate those struggling with serious psychological or physical challenges and we use pre-natal screening and elective abortion to ensure that more than 90% of human beings with Down syndrome never live to take their first breath. In a world with surrogate pregnancy and designer babies life itself has become a commodity. And Americans, ever the consummate consumers, do not appreciate defects in their merchandise. And so: we have stigmatized imperfection and suffering.
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me,
it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,
and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come;
but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matthew 18:6-7)
Two years ago the Huffington Post published a three-part story on The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the Largest Public Health Study You Never Heard Of. The story begins with an obesity clinic in San Diego:
It was 1985, and Dr. Vincent Felitti was mystified. The physician, chief of Kaiser Permanente’s revolutionary Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, CA, couldn’t figure out why, each year for the last five years, more than half of the people in his obesity clinic dropped out.
The strange behavior—lots of those who dropped out were actually having great success prior to dropping out—drew Dr. Felitti’s attention, but cracking the mystery proved difficult. In fact, the first breakthrough came completely by accident. He was asking a series of standard questions to an obesity program participant when he accidentally posed the question “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” instead of “How old were you when you were first sexually active?” The participant replied, “Forty pounds.” The article recounts:
[Dr. Felitti] didn’t understand what he was hearing. He misspoke the question again. She gave the same answer, burst into tears and added, “It was when I was four years old, with my father.” He suddenly realized what he had asked.
This was only the second case of incest Dr. Felitti had come across in over 20 years, but just 10 days later he came across another example. “It was very disturbing,” he said. “Every other person was providing information about childhood sexual abuse. I thought, ‘This can’t be true. People would know if that were true. Someone would have told me in medical school.’”
As Dr. Felitti began to study the problem he became increasingly convinced that cases of incest and other traumatic experiences that he termed Adverse Childhood Experiences were far more common that people believed, but initially he had very little success in convincing others of his results. Then, in a study running from 1995-1997, Dr. Felitti and his colleagues were able to interview over 17,000 participants about their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As the second article in the HuffPo series describes it:
When the first results of the survey were due to come in, Anda [Felitti’s colleague] was at home in Atlanta. Late in the evening, he logged into his computer to look at the findings. He was stunned. “I wept,” he says. “I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
Here are the core results of the first ACE study, which have been confirmed in subsequent studies. First, “there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.” So these ACEs are quite serious in terms of their impact on the lives of those who experience them. Second, two out of three participants had suffered from at least one ACE and nearly 60% had suffered from two or more. So they are indeed quite widespread, much more than most people believe. But the most shocking result of all comes when you consider the demographics of the people in the study:
The ACE Study participants were average Americans. Eighty percent were white (including Latino), 10 percent black and 10 percent Asian. They were middle-class, middle-aged, and 74 percent were college-educated. Since they were members of Kaiser Permanente, they all had jobs and great health care. Their average age was 57. As Anda has said: “It’s not just ‘them’. It’s us.”
So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights,
and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great. (Job 2:13)
As I wrote in the beginning: more pain and suffering is—all else equal—a bad thing. But all else is not always equal. Myopic emphasis on the minimization of suffering is hedonism’s twin. It lends itself to the line of thinking, often misattributed to Stalin, that “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.”
In addition, many meaningful and necessary life experiences are inseparable from the pain and suffering that accompany them.
Growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you’re just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something. Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind–graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There’s the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans, and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn’t give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There’s the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bury their burdens.
And if you’re very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a movement of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last–and yet will remain with you for life.
Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it’s a big part, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it’s a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you’re alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.(Jim Butcher, in Chapter 31 of White Night)
Perhaps most importantly, however, the reality is that we cannot mourn with those who mourn if mourning itself has become secret and furtive. To the extent that we remain unaware of the great, wide, swathes of pain and tragedy and heartache that beset our friends and family and colleagues and neighbors—even in the First World and even in the middle class—we suppress those who should be healed or, where that is not possible, at least comforted. Those who are already hurting the most are made to bear the burden of society’s stigmatization of suffering.
It is for this reason that I am so deeply disturbed by the politicization of suffering. Pain is something that should unite us as a universal human experience, but our fascination with quantifying and correlating pain in the service of this or that political ideology renders pain and suffering an exclusive and antagonistic experience. It divides instead of uniting, makes strangers instead of friends, creates enemies instead of allies.
I do not for a moment proffer the absurdity that there are no factors—such as race or socio-economic status—that correlate with specific kinds of suffering and oppression. Nor am I arguing for some kind of ridiculous equivocation, as though everyone suffers the same. Far from it: I believe that suffering–like pleasure–is fundamentally incommensurate from person to person. No comparisons are possible. I am also not inveighing against concern for catastrophic suffering in remote places or for concern with systematic injustice. All these things matter, but I cannot help but believe that we would do better to stress what is common rather than digging to find more that is distinctive.
When we think that we know how much a person has suffered or not suffered because we know their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their marital status, or their race, or their country of origin we have made the grave error of seeing categories when we should be seeing individuals. These kinds of assumptions do a great deal of damage because they divert our sense of empathy from individuals within our circle of direct influence towards abstract groups and causes over which we can have only minimal influence. How common is it for us to feel sympathy for some member of an in-group we’ve never met, while fighting with a family member or co-worker who falls into the wrong political category? It’s so much easier to empathize with the idealized pain and suffering of groups rather than the far, far messier drama of individuals whose lives intersect—often awkwardly—with our own.
Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you,
as though some strange thing happened unto you. (1 Peter 4:12)
We are made to suffer, and this is true for both definitions of the word “made.” We were created to experience suffering within this life as part of the general plan. Once we get here, we are forced to undergo specific painful experiences. Some are God’s will. Some are random chance. Some are the result of the choices of others. Some we bring upon ourselves. It’s probably hopeless to try and figure out which is which.
I haven’t read Robyn Schneider’s tale of high school romance The Beginning of Everything, but in writing this piece I came across a quote from the book:
“Life is the tragedy,” she said bitterly. “You know how they categorize Shakespeare’s plays, right? If it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. And if it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. So we’re all living tragedies, because we all end the same way, and it isn’t with a —damn wedding.”
The quote got me thinking: Mormonism teaches that marriage is forever. Families are eternal. In our sealing ceremonies, we are joined not “til death do you part” but for time and all eternity. So yes, there is a funeral at the end of life, and that is tragic. But the wedding outlasts the funeral, and that is the Mormon affirmation that we can—with actions we take in this life—participate in the defeat of death and tragedy and secure a happy ending for ourselves and our families. Not instead of all the pain, but in addition to all the pain and, just a little bit, because of all the pain.
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:22)