Three years ago, J K Rowling gave the commencement address at Harvard. In it, she addresses the young graduands, and speaks about the value of overcoming difficult times. It’s a wonderful, inspiring speech. One which – for perhaps the first time – led me to admire Ms Rowling as a thinker, and as a speaker. Of course, as she acknowledges, during those difficult times, it is hard to believe that this – this – will one day be something to look back on with affection or gratitude.
I will never look back on this time in my life as having intrinsic, life-serving value, but Rowling – in this speech – doesn’t really fall for that horrid old cliche that the horrors we live through make us better people and are, therefore, to be celebrated. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the insensitive say, desperate to offer hope to those struggling through the darkest of days. For one thing – as Rowling notes – during the period of our suffering, there is no guarantee that the suffering will end, that it will be overcome. This is not – your life is not – a midday movie. In Jonathan Saffran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, he writes that “the end of suffering does not justify the suffering.” In other words – and in a different sense than it is usually meant – the end does not justify the means. The revelation – the honing or tempering – of your strengths through suffering does not make suffering beautiful, ennobling (as J K Rowling puts it), or necessary to the formation of a rounded or even of an extraordinary individual.
Having survived the holocaust may have made (some of, even most of) the people who survived it stronger, more aware of the need for compassion, more acutely aware of the value of human dignity, or of the need to fight for the rights of oppressed people, etc, but it does not justify the holocaust, or the suffering that any of those individuals endured. Surviving the holocaust also made some Jewish people angry, afraid, secretive, distrustful, broken, even cruel. And there are many – as we know – no matter how dignified, strong, clever or kind, whose suffering ended not in the triumph of overcoming adversity, but in death.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and survived. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation website:
He withstood extremely harsh conditions in prison with dignity and fortitude. Other prisoners remark on how he became a leader of all the other prisoners, fighting for their rights to get better treatment, improved food, and study privileges. He encouraged fellow prisoners never to give away their dignity. He also became a unifier between prisoners belonging to different political organisations. In the latter part of his imprisonment, Mr Mandela initiated talks with the apartheid regime, which ultimately led to peaceful negotiations in South Africa.
Mr Mandela survived his imprisonment, and achieved great things both during and following his imprisonment. He – like many in South Africa – suffered a great deal under Apartheid, fought against it, and was instrumental in its final undoing. And yet, I cannot believe that it was necessary for him to spend twenty-seven years of his life in prison for Apartheid to fall. Just as I cannot believe that it was necessary for millions of Jewish people to lose their lives in the holocaust so that those who survived might better understand the value of life, the horrors of genocide, and/or become better people. To me, this is monstrous logic.
I do not believe that suffering has made anyone a better person. If they are good people, they are good people. The suffering that they endured may have highlighted their strengths, but it may also expose their frailties. Often, heroes are not ‘better’ people than the rest of us: they are ordinarily good and decent people placed in extraordinary circumstances who find a way to survive, and perhaps to help others survive. When their suffering is over – or sometimes in the middle of it – they struggle to make meaning of the suffering by seeking a greater purpose. By seeking to change the conditions under which they suffer. And if they overcome their suffering, and if their stories of suffering are picked up by the media – by the recording instruments of history – we make of their stories something like fables. We turn their suffering into a narrative event – a stage they had to pass through in an age-old archetypal story to reach that forward-looking, hopeful happy ending.
In his analysis of the structure of the mythic tale of the hero, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the various stages of the archetypal hero’s epic adventure. One stage of the journey is ‘descent to the underworld’: the katabasis. He writes:
The first step…consists in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external to the internal world. Macro to microcosm. A retreat from the desperations of the waste-land to the peace of the ever-lasting realm that is within. But this realm, as we know from psychoanalysis, is…the unconscious. It is the realm that we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever.
The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside … and eradicate them. This is the process known to Hindu and Buddhist philosophies as viveka, or discernment.
Two things: first, Campbell is not talking about real life here, but about archetypal or mythological narratives in which the stuff of real life is reflected and transformed into something greater and more meaningful so that we – as humans – might draw comfort, solace, and perhaps inspiration from them. Second, in the hero’s journey as described here, the horrors the hero encounters in the outside world are – to all intents and purposes – symbols of the internal conflicts he must solve. They are symbols, which can be overcome through symbolic gestures, and through grappling with the ‘real’ problem within the self that they represent.
Real suffering in the real world is not always overcome through an encounter with the deeper self. A tsunami, an earthquake, a holocaust, a genocidal regime, a serial killer, are not symbols of your own inadequacies, or of your failure to realise your better self. They cannot be overcome by turning inwards to the ‘causal zone’ where the ‘difficulties really reside’. Sometimes, the difficulty really does reside outside the individual. You are not to blame for your cancer, your child’s death, the earthquake, etc. And they cannot be overcome by facing up to them because they are not symbols of some failure within yourself.
Your life is not a myth.
I do not believe that suffering – real, lived suffering rather than its fictional counterpart – has any redeeming qualities in and of itself. Some children who suffer childhood cruelty – psychological, social, even sexual abuse – grow up to be strong, justice-oriented individuals. Sometimes they respond to their experience of unhappiness by choosing not to have children of their own, or by working very hard to provide their own children – and the children of others – with more positive, safe experiences than they had. But often – and there are ample studies to show that this is true – childhood abuse is handed down from generation to generation. The abused become the abusers.
Anecdotally, many violent criminals have themselves been the victims of emotional, psychological and physical abuse. It did not make better people of them. Their dissatisfactions, hurt, and shame led them not to fight for the greater good, but to punish others.
On a smaller scale, long-term poverty can reveal the strength of an individual’s character, but it might equally reveal other, less palatable features. Selfishness, cruelty, bitterness.
The fact of any human being’s suffering is something of which we – as a culture, as human beings – should be ashamed. Instead, too often we turn to the age-old narrative archetype of the martyr: of the sufferer who is redeemed, and through whom the rest of us are redeemed. Happy endings – Nelson’s release, the collapse of Apartheid – are linked narratively to the suffering they endured. Cause (suffering) and effect (resistance, and the overthrow of the oppressor). And yet, I cannot help feeling uncomfortable with such a connection. And cannot help seeing that there are many, many other stories that are not celebrated, and which reveal that not every political prisoner is celebrated as a hero. Not every man who is incarcerated for 27 years survives, let alone goes on to become a national hero.
I think that, at times, such logic allows us to live with the knowledge of others’ suffering without doing anything about it. Watching others suffer, such a logic allows us to buy into the logic of parents, watching a child who has hurt themselves through doing something foolish. They will learn from this, we tell ourselves. This will make them better people. Stronger, more able to cope with adversity, aware of the limits of their world, and of the threat it represents to their safety and wellbeing.
Yesterday, for example, I overheard someone say – of the Japanese – that perhaps now they will finally understand the dangers of nuclear power. They suggested that what has happened – the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the threat of a nuclear breakdown – are the instruments of suffering through which the Japanese nation and people will learn their lesson, and become better citizens of the world. Better people.
A teenage boy and his grandmother lay trapped in the wreckage of their home for 9 days following the earthquake. The young man – Jin ABe, who is 16 years old – and his grandmother – Sumi – lived for more than a week in a collapsed room in which they could not stand. Jin Abe wrapped his grandmother in the blankets he could find, and kept them both alive with the little water and few snacks he could find. Jin Abe is a hero, but he did not learn to be a better man because of the earthquake. As his father, Akira Abe, said in an interview quoted in the UK’s ‘Mail Online’:
He doesn’t talk much, but I always thought he was a great man. This time he really proved it. [emphasis added]
Thank goodness – thank goodness – for Akira Abe, who knew all along that his son was a great man. Who did not need the proof of his son’s and his mother’s suffering, and their survival, to know that his son cared for his grandmother, and was resourceful, calm, generous, brave.
Suffering and adversity may call on our deepest reserves of courage, generosity, strength and dignity. But they call on reserves that are there within us. Or are not there. They may sharpen those potentialities into something finer, but they may equally thwart or destroy potential. A child who lives with excessive criticism may strive to achieve – to outrun the critic – or may collapse beneath the weight of negativity. Neither outcome justifies the criticism.
It is true, perhaps, that too many who do not suffer, or who do not see the suffering all around them, are complacent. I would be willing to concede that suffering, and the challenges of adversity, often effectively disrupt complacency and push us into action. But it makes me sad to think that only through suffering can we be politicised – prodded – into action. Why must millions die before we act? Why must a man spend his life in prison before we will listen to his stories of political oppression?
In her speech, J K Rowling argues for the importance of the imagination. For empathy – the ability to imagine ourselves in another’s position. She says:
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
Surely – surely – we do not require suffering in order to find the better parts of ourselves, in order to be able to imagine, and work towards, a better world.
Surely, we can do better than that.