Tag Archives: Suffering

Healthy Animal Insensibility

“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.”

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Suffer the Little Children

What people believe is a measure of what they suffer.

It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished Peter De Vries’ book and I still can’t bring myself to begin another novel.  I pick here and there at Chekhov stories, at Montaigne and Emerson and DeQuincey.  I read magazines.  But in between and throughout the day I return again and again in my mind to The Blood of the Lamb.

My father used to say so, and having been a father myself now for six years, I suspect it’s true: Until you have children of your own it’s impossible to understand the burden of heartache that comes with parenthood.  It weights your steps like leaden boots.  It bounds your vision in every direction.  It colors every thought.  It groans perpetually in the nerves and in the marrow of your bones, sharp, but vaguely sweet.

That people are ever able to survive the suffering and death of their children is incomprehensible to me.  I think about the quote above and I think about De Vries’ own loss.  The Blood of the Lamb is more than a tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.  It’s also very much about faith, and the death of faith.

I wonder why he didn’t write ‘love’ instead of ‘believe.’  In its power to evoke it, love seems almost a form of suffering in its own right, and it’s not hard to imagine that the more objects you give your heart to in a world of universal transience, the more you open yourself to pain at their inevitable loss.  But he didn’t write ‘love.’

Perhaps he meant that the more we suffer, the less we are likely to believe; or, conversely, that the more things we believe, the more we are bound to suffer over them.  Or perhaps he meant that the particular things we believe (religiously, personally) grow naturally out of our individual fears, as a way of counteracting those fears and pushing them – and the psychological suffering they entail – farther away.  But I don’t think so. 

I wonder, instead, if De Vries was simply saying that we suffer according to the terms of our personal creeds.  The believer in Self, then, suffers specifically in terms of the self; the believer in Nothing in terms of the void; the believer in a personal God in terms of close acquaintance with unobliging omnipotence.

What does it mean for a believer in Love (as every parent must be) to suffer in terms of love?  Maybe The Blood of the Lamb is De Vries’ answer to that question.

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