Saturday, February 20, 2010

On suffering

I recently have been contemplating the concept of “suffering.” It’s one of those things we hear a lot about (like “accepting an apology” or “taking responsibility”) but may require closer examination. So why “suffering” you ask and I reply “Why not suffering?” Miriam Webster’s online dictionary defines suffering as:

1: to endure death, pain, or distress

2 : to sustain loss or damage

3 : to be subject to disability or handicap

Well I think that these definitions fall short of the human experience of suffering. Others are simply off the mark. For example, how do we know that someone “enduring death” suffers? This seems the stuff of a séance. Also, I doubt that many people who are developmentally disabled or otherwise handicapped would say that they are suffering from simply being subject to their disability. I’ll grant Webster that definition “2” has merit, but not for my analysis. I really want to focus on the notion of enduring pain or distress. “Enduring” is defined by Webster as “to continue in the same state.” Thus, suffering is continuing in pain or distress. My thesis is that to suffer one must remember the pain from yesterday, experience it today, and anticipate that it will be there tomorrow. In other words, suffering is a cognitive process that requires memory, perception, and anticipation.

In the Atlanta Symphony program notes from a concert I recently attended, there was a quote from Franz Schubert that seems to capture this notion. Schubert had a chronic illness, which for purposes of protecting the southern gentile, was not named in the program notes. Indeed he seems to have died from syphilis or the medication that was used to treat the disease at the time, or both. Anyway, here is the quote:

I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicities of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? “My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore”. I may well sing every day now, for each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning but recalls yesterday’s grief.”

Schubert remembers his pain from the day before (“…each morning but recalls yesterday’s grief”), he anticipates that his pain will not lessen (“Imagine a man whose health will never be right again…”), and he feels the pain contemporaneously (“I fell myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature…”). Now that is suffering! It also provides insight into the conceptual nature of suffering, that is, that it requires higher-level cognitive functions rather than simply feeling pain. In fact, Schubert’s suffering, and maybe all human suffering, is existential (from experiential: derived from experience or the experience of existence or relating to or dealing with existence (especially with human existence)).

I remember a few years ago having flu that made me so miserable that I would have welcomed some sort of surcease from the memory of yesterday’s misery, today’s experience, and the anticipation that I would feel equally bad tomorrow. Schubert describer his suffering better, but I  certainly suffered in those few days.

Well on to other high-minded thoughts…..

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