Pitfalls of the Quest for a Pain-Free Life

Could Avoiding All Suffering Be Bad for Us?

Save for a few sadists, nobody enjoys the existence of suffering. We’d get rid of it if we could.

Katherine Boyle, in an article for the Free Press, says, “Left and right can’t seem to agree on anything these days, but on the subject of suffering there is near consensus: eradicating it in full is the common goal of government, technology, medicine, and science.”

She argues that for the past fifty years (dating back to Roe v. Wade and the elimination of the military draft), the United States has made a concerted effort to render suffering optional.

And, she argues, that’s a problem.

Unintended Consequences

A culture devoted to eliminating suffering, Boyle explains, creates its own set of ills. Some of those are clearly apparent today. For one thing, there’s a flood of addictions resulting from a “literal campaign to ‘end pain’ by the American medical establishment, which led the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to erroneously endorse OxyContin as a side-effect-free cure-all.”

We’re also seeing a rise in anxiety. “Recent headlines show no one’s coping very well these days,” Boyle writes. Fixated on avoiding suffering, we no longer know how to live with it when it (inevitably) arrives. Any suffering at all knocks us over. We’ve lost resilience.

And our quest to avoid suffering leads us to micro-manage our lives and other people’s, right down to their speech: “In a culture that has no reverence or tolerance for suffering of any kind,” Boyle writes, “even the smallest forms of it can seem like oppression.”

Ironically, Boyle says, “in our attempts to end suffering, we now see a culture obsessed with synthetic suffering of our own creation; not immediate, real pain from inflation or economic uncertainty, but distant fears that feel so very real they inflict psychological trauma on the young, so we’re told.”

In other words, one way or another we’re going to suffer—if not naturally, then by problems of our own creating.

Life Is Pain

Maybe it would be better to accept what previous generations knew: life by its very nature entails suffering. That’s the human condition.

As W. H. Auden wrote in his poem about a famous painting:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In other words, suffering may be the whole world to the sufferer, but to everyone else it’s mundane, an expected part of life. We each suffer, and the world keeps turning.

That’s not a bad thing. It keeps pain in perspective. It keeps us in perspective.

My high school superintendent tried hard to instill in us an element of perspective (teenagers notoriously having none). Each day during assembly he’d say, “Remember, into every life a little rain must fall” or, “In every life there are hills, and there are valleys.”

Westley, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, puts it more bluntly in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain,” he says. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

These days a lot of people are selling something. Maybe we shouldn’t be buying.

Finding Meaning in Suffering

“It is not a coincidence,” Boyle writes,

that the modern campaign to eradicate suffering commenced just as religiosity in general and Christianity in particular began to decline at a rapid pace in America. There is no religion that doesn’t embrace suffering as integral to its teaching....

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”

Pretending we can avoid suffering, rather than looking beyond it or growing through it, is a poor trade. It reduces us from human being to primitive organism, fixated on nothing but pain-avoidance. We can never be brave or noble; we can never look beyond our immediate physical circumstances and into the wider spiritual realm. We never experience a divine hand reaching into our frailty and, just as with the crucifixion and resurrection, transforming our grief or pain into beauty, joy, peace.

If we try to avoid suffering at all costs, we make ourselves far less than God meant us to be.

Think it Through

None of this is to say that all suffering is good, or that we shouldn’t try to alleviate some of the world’s pain and heartache. Boyle writes:

In no way am I suggesting that reducing maternal morbidity is bad or that returning to trench warfare is the key to happiness. Who can look at images of true suffering from the recent earthquake in Turkey or the ongoing civilian casualties from the war in Ukraine and see anything other than a senseless hell? These horrific events also remind us that violent suffering still exists, and it is noble to work to reduce it.

But eradicating suffering in this country—or at least striving to reach that utopian goal—has come with some unforeseen consequences.

Those consequences—and the attitudes behind our devotion to escaping pain—are surely worth discussing.

Boyle’s article on the topic is a good beginning.

Further Reading:

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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