The Point of Pain in an Anesthetized Society

The venue: the Royal Geographical Society. The motion: ‘We’ve Never Had it so Good.’ For the motion: two interchangeable rationalists armed with pie charts and line graphs demonstrably proving that the pie of prosperity only gets bigger and the line of progress ­– x axis Time, y axis Science – ascends steadily towards quantifiable happiness. Against the motion: another rationalist wielding comparable weaponry; but, contrary to his counterparts, the pessimistic rationalist’s charts show that it is rather depression, obesity, and global temperatures which are on the rise. Lastly, couched in a corner somewhat apart from the rest of the panel, is the token artist. He isn’t armed with facts and graphs; he hasn’t even brought any notes. Instead, the artist comes to calmly preach the inevitability of suffering, gently reminding the enraptured audience that there is always some hole in the heart, or worm in the bud, or canker in the rose of human happiness.

There are variations on this debating theme, but the panel never strays far from the archetypes summarised above. There’s your Steven-Pinker-type progressivists tallying the score of society’s numerical contentment; a pessimistic scientist exposing the dirty underbelly of technological innovation; and finally, the artist, who has come to invoke the eternal truth that it is our human lot to suffer. It’s difficult to argue with any of these positions; we are without a doubt a great deal safer, warmer, and better fed than our ancestors – with the added caveat that this is only true for certain people in certain countries. Nevertheless, even though there is still poverty, depression, immiseration; even though the consequences of our material indulgence will be nothing short of catastrophic for the environment; still, the majority of us have indeed ‘never had it so good’.

More than ever before we are free from the forms of suffering which tormented (and terminated) our ancestors. Most of us are likely to lead a life of pain-free longevity, with warm homes, abundant food, and more leisure time than we know what to do with. Which isn’t to say, as the artist rightly reminds us, that we don’t and won’t still suffer from depression, isolation, the pangs of loss and the unending torture of human relationships. But much of the suffering which was once inevitable now needn’t be so. We can spend gloriously empty hours lounging around the house, bingeing simultaneously on T.V., social media, and vast quantities of ready-made food. If supplies run low, we needn’t even make the erstwhile torturous trip from house to car; everything we could possibly want is but a click away from instantaneous delivery. We can forever reside inside the comfortable sanctuary of the household.

The problem with our newfound ease, the truth we are not reminded of frequently enough, is that suffering is not only inevitable, but desirable. That there is real gratification to be derived from pain is suggested by the record numbers of people participating in extreme sports. As Leo Benedictus pointed out back in 2016, the number of mountain-climbers, skydivers, surfers, hang-gliders and paragliders is continuously on the rise. And the risks inherent to the appeal of extreme sports suggest there is more to this than a renewed awareness of healthy living, though that of course is part of the picture. People want to experience the dangers civilisation shields us from. On top of that, the sweat and grind of physical labour is simply a welcome relief from our perennially sedentary lives; a necessary respite from the perfect tedium of spending the whole day in a chair or in bed. Whereas our ancestors toiled in the fields for the sake of survival, our self-inflicted labour is completely without practical purpose: instead of moving boxes, fixing cars, or building houses, we exercise for no other reason than the pleasure of exercising; a noteworthy paradigm shift.

As we progress towards increasing material comfort, it is important to remember the value of suffering, but also to appreciate the distinction between constructive and destructive pain. There are obviously painful experiences which even the most adamant mantra-chanter of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ would refrain from endorsing. The ache of exercised muscles has constructive benefits; the permanent damage of torture or trauma, not so much. But what is remarkable about contemporary society is that, now more than ever before, we have the ability to choose the pain we inflict upon ourselves. To be clear, this is not to say we should romanticise suffering or refrain from remedying hunger or disease or excessive labour; rather, we should attempt to raise everyone to the condition of material contentment from which they can rationally choose to experience constructive pain.

If we continue to define progress solely in terms of comfort and contentment, we risk losing the benefits that constructive forms of pain can have on one’s wellbeing: for instance, the utility of exercise in overcoming depression. Through controlled exposure to certain forms of suffering, we can remedy the malaise which mars contemporary life. In short, we need to consciously re-evaluate the role that pain can play in our lives, and accept the fact that one of the most grievous of our problems here in the first world is that, if anything, we do not suffer quite enough.

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