“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.
James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”
Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”
“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)
There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.
Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.
If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:
“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”