Friday, January 4, 2013

How Much Must We Suffer?

When you have a mental illness, you suffer. Every day can be a struggle. To be alive, to function, to focus on basic tasks...all of these things can look and feel like steep mountain climbs.

The medical establishment can offer you medications, however, that might mute your suffering. I have heard many creative individuals who view their illness as an intricate element of their powers and very being voice concerns over whether the bargain--we'll take away a bit of the pain, but you may end up giving up a bit of yourself--is worth taking.

How much suffering is too much? When does struggling lead to suffering?

Struggle is the currency of personal growth. Whether it be in the gym, at your job, in your relationships, or acquiring any kind of skill, you will struggle. Suffering is the biproduct of struggle. Suffering is struggle without resolution. As you struggle to lift weights outside of your existing comfort zone, your muscles suffer. As you attempt to understand a new and complicated philosophical model, your mind suffers. Your spirit suffers. Eventually, however, a membrane breaks: you come out the other side, and suddenly that philosophical model--those weights--are within your range of capability.

Many artists have mental illness, and many of them do not medicate because they feel it will cause their art to suffer. Many artists also commit suicide, and what causes art to suffer more than the death of the artist?

Maybe an artist would suggest that they must suffer, because the world needs art. The world needs 'executive madness'. All of our best leaders have had at least a touch of this madness. If they all were to go on mood stabilizers, would progress halt? Is the art, or the leadership, or the vision, worth the cost of the life of the artist or the leader or the visionary? It's a tough call. On an even simpler level, are we really living if we are not experiencing life to our fullest capability?

I think of the Christian belief that Jesus had to suffer on the cross in order that mankind might be forgiven of our collective sins. The rationale and the mechanics of this set-up are a mess, but the fundamental Christian understanding that suffering must accompany struggle, and that only through struggle can something higher be obtained appear to be self-evidently true. Whether or not the suffering can be done vicariously is a different issue entirely, which would need to be explored separately. This Christian core also seems to accept the idea that there is an acceptable amount of human life that might be sacrificed for a higher creative end; be it Jesus dying so that man might be redeemed, or the artist dying so that man might be raised up.

The question of acceptable suffering also looks different when you look at mental illness through the (appropriate) lens of medical health; how much suffering would you allow yourself to experience if you had cancer or irritable bowel syndrome? What higher purpose would justify those pains? How much of your individuality would you be sacrificing if you allowed yourself to be alleviated of that suffering?

It's a very complicated question, and it's one that isn't helped by the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness. It also isn't helped by one of the dominant themes of our capitalist society: we must always be comfortable. We must always be enjoying ourselves.

Usually, I write for my own illumination: writing helps me hash out what my real feelings are about an issue. Here, I find myself at the end with the same questions I started with. C'est la vie.


Lodo Grdzak said...

Henry Miller concludes his masterwork PLEXUS with the following: "Suffering is unnecessary. But one has to suffer before he is able to realize that this is so. It is only then that the true significance of human suffering becomes clear. At that last desperate moment--when we can suffer no more!--something happens which is in the nature of the miracle. The great open wound that was draining the blood of life closes up, the organism becomes like a rose. One is "free" at last...with a yearning for ever more freedom, ever more bliss. The tree of life is kept alive not by tears, but the knowledge that freedom is real and everlasting."

Good stuff!

Spencer Troxell said...

That's a great quote. Thanks!