“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters.”
— Neil Gaiman, The Ocean At The End Of The Land.
How far would you go, to ease your own suffering? Suffering, like some thousand-headed monster, comes in endless and myriad forms; and we must, all of us, encounter one or two heads lifetimes—and often many more than that.
However, like people, not all suffering is made equal, and there are some among us on this planet today who bear great burdens indeed, and others whose loads are less ponderous. It is also a matter of perspective. In other words, suffering, in unique alchemy with our personality, temperament, and life experience, is inflated or deflated in terms of intensity depending on how we see it.
Experiencing the same suffering—say, hard work—one person might grit their teeth and plow through it, while another, less industrious creature groans and moans and wails through the entire affair, before giving up halfway through and getting themselves a nice, cool glass of lemonade. In this scenario, who suffers more in the end, though: the hardworking woman, who now has something tangible to show for her efforts, or the frivolous one?
Indeed, suffering, integral as it is to life, is more complex and intricate than almost anything under the sun. When it comes to the business of living—and this is applicable to all creatures—we have two aims: to eliminate, or reduce suffering, and obtain pleasure or comfort. This is the core reward system propelling us through our days. Everything we do or say or think is subconsciously weighed in terms of it. It is also what differentiates us from animals. Animals, being, arguably, emotionally less complex, and living as they do in the present moment, see every second of their lives as an opportunity to get rid of suffering and increase pleasure.
Pleasure, or the prospect of it, after all, is nature’s own little carrot on a stick, designed to keep organisms going after what is necessary to survive and propagate the species: hunt, eat, drink, reproduce. For humans, however, possessing as we do an awareness of time, a concept of the past, present and the future (whether the concept is correct or not is up to debate, but that does not concern us in this example), it gets a little more complicated. For us, every second presents the choice to relieve our suffering in the present moment–or willingly suffer in the present moment for some future pleasure.
It’s a balancing scale nestled in our hearts, constantly tipping back and forth, objects of desire popping into existence on the scales and blinking out again. For instance, you do not want to go to work. You hate your coworkers, you hate your job—but you also know that if you do go, and suffer through it, then you will be rewarded economically later on. So, you make the choice to go to work, in order to get money and use it to increase your comfort and pleasure further down the line. Or perhaps you dislike your spouse. Perhaps you have disliked him for quite some time. But a divorce would mean splitting the assets, and you certainly don’t desire handing over half the house to your husband, not when you were the one who paid for it. So instead you put up with your partner, and his horribleness, and indulge in an affair or two on the side. Affairs mean risking discovery, flirting with the possibility of pain and shame, but, weighed against the pleasure you get from the dalliances, to you, it’s worth it.
But the examples I have so far provided are peanuts compared to the real, nitty-gritty suffering that exists in the realm of deep-seated emotions. As stated before, according to the laws of Nature, we will do whatever it takes to eliminate suffering and obtain pleasure. Therefore, we will often do anything it takes to ease our suffering. Now, here is the important part: this rule means that anything you have done to hurt someone else, or anything anyone has done to hurt you, most likely was done in order to ease suffering to some degree. You don’t hate him, you hate yourself; but it’s easier, it causes less suffering, to do the former than face the truth of the latter; to loathe what is without, than what is within.
In short, when humans are unhappy, depressed, or angry, or experience any sort of unpleasant emotion, a lack of self-confidence, resentment, shame (shame is a big one)—and this is what makes us capable of the most evil deeds, this ability to remember past hurts, to plan and avenge those who wronged us—we either take it out ourselves, or those around us.
Puts the whole world into perspective, doesn’t it? Much of the pain in the world, the hatred, can be traced back to this simple principle. We are hurting, so we want others to hurt, too, and then those we hurt then go on to hurt others to ease their pain, and on it goes, a twisted, endless line of agony, threading through millions of hearts. Take Hitler, for instance. Now, I don’t profess to know what exactly was going on in his noggin when he gave permission for such genocide to be carried out, but chances are he was hurting, deeply, in some way—he was a failed artist, after all—and rather than face the hurt inside himself, he offloaded it onto the Jewish people.
Obviously any normal, empathic person wouldn’t, no matter how much suffering they were undergoing, ease it by killing millions of people, but Hitler was a case of an extremely psychologically disturbed and sociopathic person grappling with his own suffering, making it a different matter entirely. Those who then carried out those orders, who locked the Jews in the gas-chambers, bullied and slaughtered them at concentration camps, without blinking an eye, most likely had wounds of their own to heal, suffering which they transmuted into violence and cruelty. Statistically, murderers and serial killers take lives, often in brutal and horrible ways, in order to get back at a society or world that they perceive has hurt or rejected them in some way, which may be part of the reason why more women are murdered than men.
The emotional implications of this rule, for a writer, are rich, and glorious. It acts as a sounding board from which to launch characters, to figure out why they do the things they do. I don’t like to use the word “character development”. It sounds altogether too mechanical, has the ring of “property development” to it, when characters, to me, are merely real people who have waltzed into my head from some other realm. Instead, just as you would with a real person, asking the question “What is the source of your suffering?” allows one to understand a character at a deeper level, and create greater emotional depth when writing them. Sometimes, in trying to pin down the pain motivating a character, I inadvertently end up discovering more of the plot as well, for in writing, as in life, everything is intertwined.
Oh, rich and glorious, indeed. A mother is jealous of her daughter (jealousy is a delightfully nuanced and poisonous form of suffering), hates seeing the beauty she has lost each time she looks at her child’s face and body, and tries to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend. To ease her own pain, the daughter harasses her less beautiful peers, eventually bringing one to the verge of suicide.
A man visits his brother’s family, and feels an overwhelming sense of shame and despair when he sees his brother’s child, who, in fact, is his. He tries to avoid the child, but can’t, and, lonely and unmarried, ends up smuggling the young boy away.
An immigrant in a new country, in order to feel more accepted by mainstream society, marries someone outside of her race, not realising this does nothing to eliminate her own lack of love and self-acceptance, both hating and loving the fact that her children’s features do not resemble her own.
A man loves a woman for how good she looks on his arm, not for herself, and the woman, who loves him, knows it.
The possibilities are endless. Faced with them, I feel like some mad, gleeful scientist standing before a hissing, blurping laboratory of test-tubes and flasks filled with hundreds of different fluids, the whole apparatus shaking and emitting clouds of smoke, promising strange alchemy and mind-boggling reactions.
No-one likes to suffer, that is certain. Nevertheless, it is suffering which allows us to tell stories, that brings nuance and richness to life, that make us more than robots, cranking and clanking through our days, and helps us to feel closer to each other. It is why we live. It is why we create Art. It is why we find ourselves, other people, and characters interesting, and therefore form relationships, fictional or otherwise. Without it, life would no longer be painful, but it certainly would be colourless. Contradictory as it sounds, suffering, in all its forms, does bring us a great deal of pleasure.