Lately there's been a lot of Sturm und Drang on this blog about the problem of pain – that is, the fact that suffering is part of life, and what this may mean for a more spiritual outlook. I have to confess I'm getting a little tired of hearing about it.
There are a lot of ways to respond to this issue. One way is to point out that the problem of pain can be exaggerated in our minds. A tragic school shooting dominates the news and makes us forget that the overwhelming majority of schoolchildren will never be in any danger. A single plane crash makes us forget that the overwhelming majority of flights are uneventful and routine. The old motto of journalists everywhere still holds true: if it bleeds, it leads. News stories always focus on tragedy, because good news, in most cases, is no news at all.
Tolstoy may have been on to something when he wrote that all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The statement isn't literally true, but it does point to the fact that unhappiness simply offers greater dramatic interest than happiness. For this reason, nearly all popular entertainment focuses on conflict and struggle, whether it's big struggles like World War II or small struggles like the incompatibility of two roommates in a sitcom. A movie, TV show, book, or play with no conflict would be supremely boring.
So we live in the world saturated with stories of conflict – true stories, as reported on the news, and made-up stories, as found in our entertainment. This may create the impression that there is more pain, struggle, and unhappiness than there really is. The truth is, most of us live pretty easy lives today – far easier than the lives of our ancestors.
In fact, I would suggest that dwelling on the problem of pain and other philosophical abstractions is itself a luxury afforded only to those who are relatively comfortable and well off. People who are really struggling and suffering and fighting for bare survival don't have time to feel sorry for themselves or to contemplate the unfairness of the cosmos. They are too busy trying to find their next meal. The mere fact that we can spend so much time talking about the negative side of life shows that most of us are pretty well insulated from the worst of the negatives.
It's also possible to overstate the unhappiness of other people. We can't really know what another person is thinking or feeling. We may assume that a legless beggar in Calcutta lives a life of unendurable misery, but if he has been a legless beggar all his life and knows no other existence, he may have adjusted to his condition a lot better than we would think.
Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that most people are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Modern studies seem to bear this out. I remember reading about one study of people who had been in catastrophic accidents that left them paralyzed. At first, naturally, they were profoundly distraught or depressed; but within a year they reported that their general level of contentment had returned to where it was before the accident. This struck me as amazing, since I would have assumed that anyone suffering such a terrible injury would never recover his emotional equilibrium, but it appears that the human psyche is remarkably resilient – and furthermore that each of us tends to have a certain preset level of general contentment that is natural for us. We tend to revert to this mean almost inevitably, despite whatever shocks and setbacks we may experience.
Pain may pose a philosophical or theological problem in some respects, but let's not forget the other side of the coin. Happiness may be said to pose certain problems for the materialist or nihilist point of view. What biological basis or evolutionary advantage can be cited to explain the thrill of artistic creation, the quiet ecstasy of manipulating complicated mathematical formulas, the aesthetic appreciation of a sunset, or the euphoria that accompanies an epiphany? If pain is part of life, so is happiness — even, in some instances, extremes of happiness that appear to serve no practical purpose.
Beyond all that, there's a simple question: who ever said that life was supposed to be easy? How do you think that Gen. Patton would have responded to such a claim if it had been raised by one of his troops?
When I think of Patton, I think of George C. Scott's performance in the film of that name – especially the opening scene in which he stands in front of a giant American flag addressing an unseen audience. He gives a harsh little pep talk, never downplaying the horrors of war or the fears of his men, but looking past these issues to focus on larger matters of honor, duty, and country. This kind of talk is profoundly unfashionable today, in our modern "therapeutic" culture, where everyone is assumed to be a perpetual child in need of comfort and protection. But throughout most of history – and even today throughout most of the world – the therapeutic culture would have been seen as a bizarre anomaly, while the virtues of perseverance against adversity and uncomplaining steadfastness in the face of suffering were the norm. The fact that we in the developed world of the 21st century have lost sight of these ancient virtues does not mean they are irrelevant. It merely means we have become infantilized and effete.
There is a consistent theme in communications allegedly originating on "the other side": namely, that life on earth is hard, and that the spirit must steel itself for an ordeal before embarking on an earthly incarnation. We see this motif reflected in near-death experiences, when the experiencer typically faces the prospect of resuming his earthly life with extreme reluctance and finds the return to life painful and traumatic. We see the same motif reflected in deathbed visions, which typically suggest a sense of relief and liberation on the part of the dying person as he surrenders his physical body. We see it also in mediumistic communications, which always stress the difficulties and perils of life on the physical plane. In fact, I can't think of any significant line of evidence relating to the afterlife that does not include a clear recognition of the painful and difficult nature of life on earth.
By analogy, we might think of a physical incarnation as a mission carried out behind enemy lines. This kind of mission was effectively dramatized in the movie The Guns of Navarone, based on the novel by Alastair MacLean. It's been a while since I saw that movie, but as I recall, the mission was no picnic. It wasn't as if the team of military men assembled to take out the guns spent their time sipping champagne and listening to Mozart sonatas. They faced danger every step of the way. They had to deal with immense physical hardship and overcome daunting obstacles. They were confronted with betrayal and setbacks that seemed fatal. Some of them didn't make it.
Of course, this was only a movie (and book). But real-life missions behind enemy lines, while less colorful, are equally fraught with hardship and carry at least equally high casualty rates. Such missions are not expected or intended to be easy, pain-free, or enjoyable. They are hard and grueling ordeals, carried out in the service of a greater purpose.
The parapsychologist Charles Tart once compared life on earth to boot camp, observing that while no one is expected to enjoy boot camp, it serves its purpose of toughening up the recruits. I think a mission behind enemy lines is perhaps an even better analogy. But regardless of how we think of it, by all accounts we are making a mistake if we assume that life is supposed to be a cakewalk. It's just not meant that way. We can complain about it, moan and groan, feel sorry for ourselves, and simultaneously congratulate ourselves on how sensitive and enlightened we are for being aware of the existence of pain in the world (as if this were a startling new insight) – or we can accept the reality that life is hard.
Most people throughout history, and most people in the world today, do accept this fact as a matter of course, along with its corollary: that if life is hard, we just have to make the best of it. It seems to me that this attitude contains more wisdom and is, in fact, more "spiritual" than all of our undignified grousing and carping.
Or to put it in fewer words: cowboy up! If it's a tough world, then make sure you're tough enough to take it.