Monday, November 12, 2007

Human Suffering Is Good?

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

While contemplating my own mortality recently, I began to think about how we humans view our demise as compared to how we view the demise of animals. The Michael Vick incident revealed how we view the suffering of animals versus how we view the suffering of humans. Now, while this essay in no way condones the behavior of Mr. Vick or any human that would deliberately torture animals, it is interesting the amount of outrage generated by this injustice as compared to the amount of outrage for the ongoing human tragedies transpiring within our midst.

Somewhere in our collective human psyche we have come to the acceptance that human suffering is, if not desirable at least tolerable. I don’t know when this acceptance took place in our human history or what exactly caused it, but its existence is none the less very real. It is displayed in how we treat suffering animals as compared to suffering humans. If we are confronted by a suffering animal we have no trouble “putting it out” of its misery. When the family pet becomes sick or just too old to continue life in a manner we deem gratifying we put them “down”. Why is it that we allow our pets or animals in general to go quietly into that good night, but we refuse to allow humans the same dignity?

Many have commented that it is primarily due to our innate fear of death that compels us to cling to any form of life no matter how torturous and labored. Others have commented that it is the sanctity of human life that prevents us from extinguishing its flame carelessly. And then there are those that espouse the self-survival instinct and how anything that would impede that would lessen the value of life. While these arguments have some rationale, I think that a deeper instinct may be at play in our collective consciousnesses. It has always seemed odd to me that many religions elevate suffering as a higher consciousness, but many adherents avoid it like the plague. So on the one hand suffering is presented as admirable and on the other hand it is evaded whenever possible.

There are many examples where the personal sufferings of an individual are hailed as remarkable and worthy of our admiration. How often has it been said that an individual withstood a tragedy or suffering with dignity. Her husband was a louse, but she withstood the suffering heroically or he fought that cancer to the very end. It is as if suffering for the sake of suffering is somehow significant, but does this only apply to others? I know for myself when I am in the midst of suffering, even if it is for some greater cause it doesn’t feel that good and my aim is not to prolong it to enhance its benefits.

I have to admit that like many others I am torn by the whole issue of suffering and even death. Being an Orthodox Christian I maintain certain beliefs about the sanctity of life and its preciousness, but at the same time I am human and like most humans do not relish the concept of suffering. I do not fear death, yet I don’t seek it out. I have left a living will stating that I should not be kept alive in some vegetative state by artificial means; I would hope that at that time I would be prepared to face whatever awaited me. But the question persists, why have we so readily accepted the concept of suffering in humans? Suffering, that we would promptly alleviate in anything that is not human but we allow for ourselves. And in many ways we not only allow for it, we advocate it.

This essay is not to promote assisted suicide or anything of the kind. I have not come to an opinion on that option and would not be comfortable expressing one if I had. I guess I am seeking discussion of the whole concept of human suffering in situations we do not allow other species to suffer. There are basically four trains of thought on human suffering with many subsets of these four. They are hedonism, utilitarianism, humanitarianism, and pessimism. Most of our concepts about suffering and pain are based in one of these four schools of thoughts.

The hedonists believe that good and evil exist in the forms of pleasure and pain. The goal of the hedonist is a state of not only reducing suffering, but of maximizing pleasure. The utilitarian’s believe that whatever benefits the most number of people is the right act; the goal is the complete abolition of human suffering. The humanitarians believe that the purpose of every human is to alleviate the suffering of other humans. The pessimists believe that all life is bad and that suffering is unavoidable and therefore suffering is necessary.

Many of us combine different forms of these four and some of us rotate back and forth depending on our current circumstances. I have also noticed that time plays a role for many in their state of mind on suffering, with many youthful hedonist and many older pessimist. So are we to continue to allow suffering for our loved ones, demanding that they do not go gently into that good night? Or will we allow what is good for Rowdy to also be good for mom, pops, or granddad?

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