Part I – Stoic and Hedonistic Cultural Approaches to Suffering
A number of years ago I ran into and old friend at a grocery store. He has been an associate pastor of a big—let me say—culturally Scandinavian church. I knew him well during his tenure as pastor, and I knew it had been a rough time for him. The senior pastor had a serious mental health problem, and I don’t mean depression or anxiety. It was a personality disorder, where he manipulated and abused many people around him, including my friend. I knew it and, fortunately, the elders of the church had figured that out.
My friend, and I will call him “Tom,” described to me that since he had left that church, he had come close to leaving Christianity entirely, and had become a “Hedonist.”
I know what a Hedonist is, in its purest, form, in the same way I know most schools of philosophy of the western cultures. While I did not major in philosophy in college, beyond basic courses, I did go back and spend a decade in serious study of western philosophy. It is my favorite hobby, wishing I had majored in it, if only I could have found a way to have made a living and supported a family from such an unmarketable major.
But I wasn’t sure that Tom meant that he was adopting the purest forms of Hedonism or just a modern stereotype of the idea. Classical Hedonism had its roots in the teachings of Babylonian philosopher, Siduri, who said, “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” This basic concept was later adopted by a school of Greek philosophy, which came out of the settlement of Cyrene, which is now located in what is now Libya. The major tenants of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy was that there is no God or gods and that the only thing that matters, to bring human happiness, is seeking pleasure. Pleasure, to them, was more than the absence of suffering.
Tom went on to explain that what he really meant was that he had spent his whole life denying himself pleasure for the sake of his Christianity and it had gotten him nowhere, only a horrible role under a spiritually abusive pastor. Going forward, he was going to seek pleasure in anyway he could find it. It could mean simply reading great books, any great books, or going to concerts of any type of music he wanted, or—and he wasn’t sure at that juncture—drinking a lot of beer, maybe looking for a lot of sex, or drugs. Whatever he wanted was now available to him. Within that context, he was hoping for finally finding some joy, real joy, since he hadn’t found it within his Christianity.
There are many philosophical tensions within theology and philosophy. If Hedonism sits on one end of such a line of tension, on the other or opposite end would be Stoicism.
Stoicism has some of its classical roots in the Greek philosopher Zeno, who himself, was a study of Socrates (whom I’m sure you have heard of). The Stoics believed (and is reflected in the modern connotation that someone is “stoic”) that logic or reason leads to happiness but that path to happiness can be easily side-tracked by our response to desires, such as partaking of vices in general. This basic idea of Stoicism was expanded over time to not just meaning that we must not give in to our desires, but to stand up to suffering and not allow it to influence us. Some took this view of suffering to the extreme, to the idea that we must seek out suffering, in order to find fulfillment.
As Europe progressed, historically and philosophically, there was a line of philosophical tension that developed across geographical landscapes. South of the Alps, Neo-Platonism (a new form of Platonic philosophy) developed, which became the backbone of the Renaissance. Within this school of thought, human experiences were paramount to successful living. I will not digress why and how this happened, although European philosophy is one of my favorite topics.
North of the Alps, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had the greatest influence. This unique form of his philosophy emphasized logic as the way to live our lives and the relegating of human emotions, to borrow from the stoics, to a distraction at best.
So, in summary, below the Alps, you were to avoid suffering and seek pleasure to find the best life. North of the Alps, you were to ignore the influence of suffering and avoid pleasure. Sometimes, those in northern cultures, suffering was even a means of personal enhancement. From this idea we get the modern mantra of “No pain, no gain.”
I’ve visited a good friend who is a Spaniard, in Spain, a few times. He said to me once, not fully understanding these deep philosophical rivers that run through Europe, the following Spanish cliché; To the Germans, all things are forbidden. To the French, some things are forbidden, and some things are sought. To the Italians, all things are sought, especially those things which are forbidden.” But that the complex philosophical landscape of Europe it in a nutshell.
On A More Personal Note
All subcultures have had great influences of much larger, philosophical movements. These influences are often convoluted and mixed to the point it is hard to recognize their roots. My Christian friends often reject this notion, thinking that their views are purely “Biblical.” But when you have had the experience of spending personal time with Christians from all parts of the earth, you can quickly see how each subculture of Christianity has been shaped by broader, secular philosophical movements.
America is made up of many different subculture enclaves. These subgroups are often broken fragments, representing their European (and sometimes non-European) roots. This has been obvious to me, as a person from the Bible-belt south, who married someone from the northern plains (Minnesota). While you can find an assortment of subcultures within Tennessee and Minnesota, even from family to family, there are dominate subcultures for each and I can describe these without resorting to stereotypes.
The southern American subculture, as any subculture, has had a variety of influences. Some of the most powerful are the European roots of English, Scottish, French, Spanish, German, and some Italians. It has also, of course, had the influence of the African cultures of the former slave. The Northern plain of the US is much more monolithic than the Southern states with a high concentration of settlers from the Scandinavian cultures.
While the German and Scottish share much of the Aristotelian emphasis on reason as do the Scandinavian countries, as Aristotelian philosophy evolved and moved northward across Europe, its most stoic forms settled in the Scandinavian countries. This refinement of Aristotelian reason with a stoic flavor, versus the emotionalism of the Platonic Humanism in the southern countries of Europe, was probably a factor of the harsher climate.
I want to talk about this microcosm in which I was thrust, growing up in the south but marring into and living for a while in the upper Midwest, as an example of these much broader philosophical considerations. This story does become more practical. However, before I start to talk about the culture of my wife, in-laws, and friends from the upper Midwest, I must be clear that I’m not speaking negatively. All cultures have their own vices and gifts to the greater world. As I navigate this very personal story, I will really try to share my own subculture in a more disparaging light than my wife’s as not to offend anyone.
The south is known for its “Southern Hospitality.” This is a true and positive trait. There it is normal, and expected, to talk to strangers such as in line at the grocery store. But beyond just greeting these strangers, it isn’t that unusual to engage in very personal conversations, and I’m talking about sharing very personal information and asking very personal questions. The stranger is treated almost the same as an old, close friend. I can’t imagine this ever happening in the upper Midwest. There, people are far more private. Although there are exceptions, people in the upper Midwest rarely share personal information even with close family members and never, ever with a stranger in a grocery store line. You would certainly never share unfavorable things, like struggles or problems. Maybe that’s a good thing. But this lack of candor is closely tied to the Stoic mentality, where suffering must be accepted without complaint and the best face must always be put forward. I know that my “over sharing” often makes Denise fell uncomfortable. I can’t imagine her ever “blogging” because writing down person thoughts for the world to see is not in her wheelhouse.
Having married into the northern plains culture, after 36 years, I am still considered a stranger in the family. The proof of this is, if I were to go and visit my in-laws by myself, I believe it would seem odd to them and they would be asking (to themselves) what did I want? On the other hand, Denise was welcomed into our family as a family member (same as me) from the first time my parents knew we were serious about marriage. If my parents were still alive, it would not be odd to them at all if Dense were to come and visit them without me. As a matter of fact, they would have a big dinner to welcome her and make her the center of attention. They made her the center of attention even when we visited them together. She was their Joan of Arc of Diana (Princess of Wales) figure. But this is typical Southern hospitality where the strange is considered the most important person. But I also blame myself for being a stranger to Denise’s side of the family. I’ve tried to crack the code of family membership, but somehow have come up short after all these years.
So, while I would prefer, as a stranger, to have my car break down along the road in the south (knowing that a complete stranger would soon help me out), if I had a hard task in front of me, such as fighting cancer, the northern culture would be most supportive for, sucking it up and pushing ahead despite adversity.
The Message of the Fish
The major Norwegian dish for Christmas, and I’m speaking of Norwegians in the upper Midwest as I do not know what they do in Norway, is lutefisk. Lutefisk is a cod that has been salt-dried—only God knows for how long ago—to the point of being like hard bricks of fish. You could hammer a nail with one. Then, when it is time to eat it, even years later (speaking of the original use in Norway), it is placed in a barrel of lye (same as Drainio®) water to dissolve the bricks into a gelatin-like mass of gooey fish. While retaining some flavor of the sea, it tastes more like cardboard. At least the upper Midwest Norwegians put butter on it to add some flavor.
While lutefisk was an essential source of protein for generations of Norwegians, out of subsistence, later it became a food of stoicism, proving that suffering is part of life. Personally, I have grown fond of lutefisk at Christmas, but in the same way I like almost getting shot in the eye with a BB gun, like Ralphie, to bring back the Christmas spirit.
I see many Hedonistic cultural values in my native South. While Las Vegas may be the most Hedonistic city, there are states that are more so than Nevada. Beyond their positive traits of hospitality, being indulgent in your wants is also expected. The top eight American states for smoking are southern states, with Michigan coming in at 9th. The top 8 states for adult obesity are all southern states, with one exception, Iowa. While the south has the lowest cost of living in the U.S., of the top 5 states where credit card debt is the highest, are all deep-south states except number one, which is oddly New Mexico. Credit card debt is the easiest measurement of living beyond your means.
Lastly, and more disturbing, of the states with the largest amount of time spent on Internet porn sites, out of the top ten, eight are deep-south states, which ironically corresponds to the Bible belt. You would think they would know better. The number one search word on these porn sites in the south is “lesbian” while, oddly, the number one search term in Minnesota is “step sister.” As I try and figure that one out, Freud would have been helpful. I suspect it could be bizarre twist on this tendency of not feeling comfortable interacting with strangers, so they even keep their sexual fantasies within the family. Not to be too critical, I will say that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the number one search term for Tennessee was “sister,” but it was “lesbian” like the rest of the south.
Out of the top 13 states for opioid prescriptions, 10 of those are southern states. However, oddly, the greatest alcohol is consumed in the upper Midwest states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Montana. I will have to give that exception some more thought as well. But is possible that alcohol is the one addiction that you can keep private the easiest.
While it seems, on the surface, the south is more deeply Christian, even that brand of Christianity also has Hedonistic overtones. I know this because I was in it for two decades. It is where the prosperity gospel started and bloomed. It is where the concept of God is more like a genie in your pocket that grants your ever wish, such as money, ease of life, and good stuff. It is a brand of Christianity that believes if you do what God wants you to do—or at least appear to do it—then you will be blessed. It is all about what God can do for me and not about sacrifice. That’s why this deeply religious region is also the biggest consumer of these bad vices mentioned above, because they tend to shape their Christianity around their desires as well.
However, in contrast to lutefisk, a favorite Christmas dish in the south could be one of many things because it is so heterogeneous there is not one dish that stands out. It might be from a receipt from “Southern Living” that has a stick of butter (that is the ONLY connection to lutefisk), two cups of sugar, two cans of Mountain Dew, and marshmallows . . . and lots of meat as it is a main course rather than a desert. But those receipts try to indulge all gastronomic desires in one spot. I will avoid digressing more, but it is also why the restaurant chain “Golden Corral” is a southern phenomenon with its formless buckets of foods built around grease, sugar and butter and the concept of gluttony in an “all you can eat” menu.
So how does all this fit into this idea of the Stoic and Hedonist walking into a suffering situation? After I just set up this background, not showing the south in a positive light, I will now tell another personal story and to some it may not show the upper Midwest in a positive light. But I mean for it to be neutral and just food for thought. I already know that someone reading this will be offended and I regret that. There is no perfect family and no perfect society.
The Broken Heel
I remember when I was 13 and went in for a layup while playing basketball at my school’s playground and my right heel fractured, right down the middle. It was a terrible pain. My mom took me to my pediatrician (he was a “northern” or as my mom said, a “Yankee”), who quickly diagnosed me–without X ray—as faking the pain to get out of school. He said, “No one breaks their foot just doing a layup,” as he rolled his eyes. He advised my mom to force me to walk on it and to go to school. I did and it was horrible. I didn’t want my classmates see me cry so I would go to my bedroom and hide as soon as I could and cried in pain.
One Sunday night, while my folks were watching Bonanza, my dad came back to the bedroom to check on me. Besides taking Tylenol around the clock, I had found that if I cut off the blood flow to my foot, it would not hurt so bad. Dad walked in and found me with a tourniquet around my ankle and my foot was snow-white. He was very alarmed and asked me, “What are you doing?”
After I explained that I was trying to reduce the pain, he became angry. Not at me, but at the pain. “I’m taking you to the Emergency Room right now!”
At the ER, they did take a X ray and seeing the fracture, scheduled me to see the orthopedist at his office in a couple of days for a cast. My mom drove me.
On the way home from the orthopedist’s, and it is a scene that I will never forget, I remember my mom sobbing and she did the strangest thing. She pinched her own leg so hard that she left a big, black bruise. That is how upset she was that I was suffering and that they had followed the pediatrician’s advice by forcing me to walk on it.
For the subsequent days, my mom cried several times and said things like, “Poor baby, I’m so sorry” about a thousand times. I am sure she gave me all the candy and deserts that I wanted and encouraged me to engage in self-pity. This is how a Hedonistic society would approach suffering, by denying it and then smothering it in things of pleasure, as if trying to put out a fire with water. I miss my mom when I’m suffering.
However, in my southern culture, you didn’t say words like “cancer,” or “dying,” as if not saying it, makes it go away. I will write more about that later.
From what I know about the culture of the upper Midwest, if I had come home from breaking my foot and if I voiced my pain, I would be told, “Well, at least you didn’t break both feet. Most people break both feet and you don’t hear them complaining.” Maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit, but suffering is always confronted by the notion that, it could be worse. Another twist on that is that there people in worse shape than you, implying that you should not be complaining.
This difference became very clear to me soon after Denise and I were married. I was sick for the first time with a case of “Man flu. I was up in the middle of the night, on my knees, vomiting in our toilet. Before long Denise came into the bathroom and looked down at me with her sleepy eyes. I was expecting her to get down on her knees beside me and wipe off my face with a wash cloth, just like my mother use to do, and to say things like “poor baby.” But standing in the doorway of the bathroom she said, “Can you go vomit somewhere else, you’re keeping me awake.” There was none of that poor baby talk. That was a classic example of how our two cultures approached suffering differently, neither with a healthy view of suffering in my opinion.
I want to elevate the suffering to a higher level as I talk about the stoic and the hedonist. So, let’s talk about cancer, a topic too familiar to me right now. How do each of those cultures handle such an issue?
Believe it or not, when I worked in a hospital in Tennessee, in the 1970s, it was common practice to lie to the victim of cancer. The family would hear the terrible news and then orchestrate a situation where no one would tell the patient, but to pretend that all was well and that they were getting better. There wasn’t a lot you could do about cancer in those days. But the belief was that cancer was so evil and horrible, that it was unspeakable. It was also taboo to mention death in any form such as “you are dying.” But the sufferer would soon figure it out. I can’t imagine this ever happening in the northern plains, even in the 1970s.
A classic example of this was when my own father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was living in norther Michigan at the time and had to assess things by phone. But someone, either my sister or my mom, told me, “Don’t you dare mention the ‘cancer’ word to dad.”
I immediately called dad’s hospital room and spoke to him. I asked, “Dad, do you know what’s going on?”
Dad said to me, “Yeah, I think I overheard that I have cancer.”
I answered, “Yes you do Dad. How do you feel about that?”
Dad answered, “Well, I know that I’m dying.”
I asked, holding back the tears, “Dad, how do you feel about dying?”
He answered, “I should have died on Omaha Beach (Normandy invasion of D Day) so every day since then has been a gift. I don’t fear dying now.”
In the stoic societies, it is far more objective. Of course, they would tell the patient that they have cancer and talk about the course of the illness. The difference is that in the southern, hedonistic, culture, denial was a tool to deal with the pain of suffering. In the stoic tradition, you are at least honest, but complaining is still frowned upon. It is as if suffering is God’s grand plan and to complain about it, is to question God. To them, suffering must be accepted with open arms.
Now that I’ve done an excellent job in offending everyone in the northern plains, and those in the deep south, I am done with this cultural background story. I want to go ahead in Part II and consider what is the healthiest way to deal with suffering. There are things you can borrow from both the Stoic and the Hedonist. I will look at this from the “Biblical” (a word that I despise because it is usually a cover for promoting one’s own agenda) and consider approaches from those without a Christian orientation as well.