I have described some of the extremes in the social views of the stoic and hedonist. I will now look at these extremes from the individual perspectives and then try to arrive at the healthiest approach to suffering.
The individual hedonist, if taken to the extreme, would find him or herself with uncontrollable sobbing at the bottom of a pit of self-pity. They would long for the entire world to be drawn into their sorrow, standing at the brim of this pit, looking down at them. The victim’s hope is that their own tears, along with that of the world, would somehow, set them afloat, allowing them to rise up and back into a painless world. But we know that can’t happen. It is futile to try and suck the entire world into one’s own pain. It is magical thinking that somehow the sufferer’s tears, and the tears of the world, could ever bring the mother or father of a dead child back into a painless world. The same is true for the widow or widower or, like me, the one who has lost their health and future. There are not enough tears in the universe to accomplish such a task.
On the other hand, the extreme stoic would bury their emotional response to their pain. While not denying its existence—like some hedonists—there would be in denial of the psychological consequence of such suffering. They would go about their business, pushing through, as if nothing was at dis-ease. The pain would be orphaned, set adrift into the dark sea. But there is a consequence, and there always will be. Suffering will pay its dues one way or another. In the end, the stoic doesn’t win. The epitaph might say, “They Suffered but Never Complained,” but beneath that granite stone will finally rest a tortured, and lonely soul.
I have been tempted in both directions. It isn’t like the proverbial angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each alluring me to their own course. These extremes are like two devils, twins with an ambition to lead astray.
Stoicism may have cost me my kidneys. I had some subtle symptoms as far back as November, but I ignored them. But, speaking in my own self-defense, they were not well defined. Some twitching and a bit of anorexia, that’s all. But I pushed through this, never missing a day of work. I also had fatigue (at my diagnoses in January my hemoglobin was 6.8, which is below half of normal) but pushed myself to exercise harder and harder. If I had gone to my doctor, then . . . if only. However, I will not give “regrets” the light of day or they will consume me.
On the other side, there are days in which I would succumb to self-pity. It too would consume me, if allowed. The late Christopher Reeves said it well. He went from being a famous actor, and a picture of perfect health (the ideal actor to play Superman) to having a cervical spine fracture and being a quadriplegic, in a millisecond. He said later, that he allowed himself only five minutes of self-pity each morning. Then he had to force the thoughts to stop . . . otherwise, it would dominate his world. Self-pity isolates you from the world because it is defined by the “self.” You can get so far into it that you eventually can’t see past your own pain.
Lessons from Job
This morning I decided to listen to the audio version of the book of Job from The Message, a contemporary paraphrased Bible. The things that stood out were the following:
- God had nothing to do with the cause of Job’s suffering. It was not his plan or act.
- Job voiced his suffering in a very dramatic way. He was brutally honest about his emotional turmoil. In his society he was considered a whiner. Certainly, his friends saw him that way. I think in our society he would be a relentless whiner too. God still saw Job as an example of a man of spiritual integrity and never criticized him for his whining or self-pity.
- Job’s friends did the right thing at first. They just sat with Job, sharing in his suffering, and said nothing.
- Job’s friends all, eventually, fell into the trap of saying the wrong thing, implying that Job’s suffering was somehow his fault. They were very articulate and confident in their arguments.
- I was really impressed with Job’s confidence in the fact that he had done nothing wrong to cause his suffering and was not persuaded differently by his equally confident friends.
- Job expressed the loss of hope in a very graphic way. He described how he and hope would be buried in graves side by side. If you lost sight of his terrible losses, you would think he was a drama queen.
- God did not rebuke Job for whining or voicing his suffering, but for bringing God into the suffering’s cause, as an agent of injustice.
In Praise of Pity
After listening to The Message, in one sitting (on my lake while fishing), I started to have a new thought about pity. I will first say that there is still the possibility of misapplied self-pity. Someone can have a minor-league disappointment and then wallow in self-pity for months or years, leaving them emotionally paralyzed. However, I’m not sure that pity, itself, is a bad thing in the major league events. I can say, honestly, that I have pity for the children who are caught up in wars, such as in Syria or Yemen. I expect them to have some self-pity, where they feel the pain of what they have lost. The same is true for the parent who has lost a child or a wife who has lost a husband or vice versa.
I feel guilty when I express my agony. It the stoic voice within me that says, “Keep your emotions to yourself.” Even before all of this I was accused of being an “over-sharer,” especially by some of the readers of my book, Butterflies in the Belfry.
I think our society has a hard time with the word “pity” whether it is self-pity or pity from an observer. The word seems to carry undesirable connotations. However, within the proper context, is a useful expression of the emotional suffering. It is one hedonistic virtue that may have merit. However, the true hedonist would embrace a malignant form of pity, that would not be helpful. It would be a pity without hope. Job didn’t have hope, but hope was realized anyway.
If there is anything of positive value that we can draw from the stoic, it is endurance in the face of suffering. However, the sufferer must not use their stoicism to deny the reality of their suffering or to mute their expression of pain. They must also not apply purpose to the suffering. There is no “bright side” to suffering, although we can try and make the best of it.
Before I close this whole series of thoughts, I want to come back to the role of the observer. Before I start this last discussion, I want to be clear that I’m not making these points because of people who have gotten it wrong when they have approached me. Most people have been generous and thoughtful when they have shared their support. There are a few exceptions. But I want to approach this from the angle of my own role as an observer of someone else’s suffering. As I’ve mentioned before, for the past 38 years, I have been a professional listener to people who are suffering. But I still have things to learn.
When someone complains, as Job did, about the agony of their suffering, sometimes stoic and hedonistic voices come in response. I wanted to illustrate some of those.
Sufferer: “I am exhausted from the pain. Some days I don’t think I can go on. It is relentless and I regret the day I was born.”
Stoic # 1: “Oh, you shouldn’t say that! I’m glad you were born. You are letting this to get the best of you. It could be worse. I knew someone who had twice the troubles as you and they never complained.”
Hedonist # 1: “Oh, I’m so sorry for you. What a horrible existence. You deserve better than this, You have been cheated by (fill in the blank) ____ (God, your doctor, those who made the chemicals that made you sick, the person who caused the accident). You need to take care of yourself. You need to go to a spa and have some pampering. It always lifts my spirits. Go out on the town, you deserve it.”
Stoic # 2: “You need to let go and let God have this. He gave you this suffering for a reason and you should be proud he has chosen you to bear it. There is no reason to complain. What doesn’t break you, makes you stronger and you will come out a better person.”
Hedonist # 2: “Oh, it will be much better. You will run again. You will dance again. You will eat all you can eat again. Have you talked to your doctor about a stronger pain pill or smoking enough pot so that you don’t even care anymore?”
In conclusion, I think the following would be examples of appropriate responses.
Good Observer #1: “I can’t imagine what you are going through. But I’m here for you if you need someone to share your thoughts with or just someone to be with you.”
Good Observer # 2: “You are really suffering. Life in this broken world has been so unfair to you. May I cry with you?”