Everyone is always healthy and there is a lot of laughter. The father goes to work (because he wants to) and everything he does there succeeds. He has a good employer and is friends with all his colleagues. If they don’t feel like working, they go home. Working is superfluous, but it is fun. The mother also works, if she feels like it, and has been through two birth deliveries, but under anaesthetic. The children go to school laughing and joking, where they learn what they like and nothing can go wrong, because there are no requirements. It is very nice at school, all the children are friends and the teachers are loving and funny.
The dog and the cat get on extremely well. The dog has learned to use the litter box, which is emptied and cleaned automatically. Human and animal food is always tasty and healthy at the same time. Disease and death do not occur. Neither does old age – it is prevented.
Oh, how wonderful.
How long can you endure such a film? Do you fall asleep? But why? Isn’t this the ideal? Isn’t that what we collectively strive for? To be happy all the time? No more problems? Not having to do anything, only what you feel like doing?
A film has already been made that starts like this, a long time ago now: The Truman Show, starring the delete elastic Jim Carey. Fortunately (for us viewers), a spotlight suddenly falls from the sky and he gets suspicious. Otherwise, we would have spent ninety minutes watching a boundless void, half a life, a motionless state that would have bored us to death.
What is missing is the other half of life, the half that gives depth to happiness. Just as if everything were the same colour blue, you would not be able to distinguish anything, so in a life of dumb luck you cannot find depth. Depth comes through suffering, through pain, through sorrow, sickness, loss. If we want everything to be blue, we reject the other colours. We don’t want those intermediate shades either. And in the long run, we look suspiciously at other shades of blue.
We are then blue-happy, that is, only happy with everything that is blue. We will never know the white light, which consists of all colours.
Truman, in ‘The Truman Show’, has such a nice life. Everything is arranged. He lives in a reality show, in which he was born. So he doesn’t know anything. The director makes sure he never gets into trouble. Everyone is always nice (which turns out to be fake). Yet he wants to live feelingly, to really experience life. Rather pain and sorrow than endless emptiness. And finally he escapes – into ordinary life, with pain, sorrow and loss, illness, death and old age.
The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han states in his book The Palliative Society that today we avoid all suffering, that everything must be ‘pleasing’ these days. Think positively, show only your best side, improve everything, especially: do not be sad. Do not say things that conflict. If you think you are not beautiful, then fix it with botox, plastic surgery or make-up. If you are sad, get a coach, or therapy, or a self-help book. No sadness, please! Pain is no longer necessary; there are plenty of painkillers. In The Palliative Society, which is much like a pamphlet, Han quotes American pain expert David B. Morris, who says that the American people are the first people to think that one has the right to be pain-free. People take drugs that are usually given to the dying: palliative sedation.
Parents-to-be have screenings all the time to prevent their baby from being born disabled or ill. Very understandable, let’s be clear, but still a symptom of a sick society. Sick, in the sense that society is missing something: an understanding of the meaning of suffering, sorrow and pain. Those who think that life is about ease, happiness, entertainment, health and prosperity, those who think that after this life everything is over and there has been nothing before, they want to make something out of it, something pleasant that they can think back to by the time they perhaps decide that their life is completed. Of course…
But what if it turns out differently? What if suffering, pain and unhappiness are the roots from which the tree of life can grow? What if the dark, damp soil, in which we cannot see a ray of light, turns out to be the breeding ground for real, lasting happiness, which is based on a completely different foundation? A happiness that is not about ourselves, but about everything and everyone? The world, our fellow men, all of nature, the cosmos…
If we assume that suffering serves a purpose, and that that is the purpose of the world and of mankind, then that suffering will not be set aside. In fact, if we really need suffering, then we, the intelligence present in us that works behind everything, will always find a way to administer it to ourselves. And if we numb ourselves, sometimes literally, by loud music, or our feelings with painkillers (some people use them as ‘dimmers’), drugs or video games, social media and so on, then it will have to hit even harder to get through to us. And it does hit hard, doesn’t it?
And if we then fall silent, for example due to lockdowns, then the whole quantity suddenly comes to the surface. Everything we did not want has been waiting around the corner.
What if we made more room for the unwanted aspects, had more faith in life, and above all reserve more time to stop and think about things, could our lives change radically? If we are not afraid to say ‘no’ to the tendency to protect ourselves, then it is also easier to say ‘yes’. Then a “yes” is not a “yes, but…”, but something you can fully support. Living with heart and soul, instead of with armour and fear.
In our pursuit of happiness, don’t we opt for the small happiness, the temporary, momentarily-not-to-be-bothered-by-anything? And don’t we have to find our way back to Paradise by working for it, by purifying our hearts and leaving our earthly desires behind? Is that an easy task?
Everything pleasing, says Byung-Chul Han, only continues the like. The consciousness that cannot shudder is a withered consciousness. According to him, we probably suffer from the ‘princess-and-the-pea syndrome’. The paradox of this pain syndrome is that one suffers more and more from less and less. Pain is not an objectively determinable quantity, but a subjective perception. Increasing expectations of medication, coupled with the futility of pain, make even the smallest pain seem unbearable. And we no longer have any meaningful connections, no narratives, no higher authorities and goals that would surmount the pain and make it bearable. If the painful pea disappears, then people will suffer from soft mattresses. For it is the persistent meaninglessness of life itself that hurts, according to Han.
It may initially be difficult to accept that deeply felt sadness, even that of a child, however much we may disapprove of it, will eventually turn into deeply felt happiness. As in a piece of music that contains dissonants that dissolve into harmony, the sky clears and we can be wonderfully moved because of that depth. We can only find balance when we have wobbled, fallen off, climbed up again, so that we understand what balance is. Pain and suffering come our way when the time is right. The trick is not to get rid of them as quickly as possible, but to receive them in the right way. Like a good host, who surrounds his guests with his cares.
In the chapter ‘Pain as Truth’, Han gives pain the following characteristics:
– Pain is bonding. Whoever rejects any painful condition cannot bind.
– Pain is distinction. It articulates life.
– Pain is reality. We perceive reality primarily through the resistance that hurts.
In the post-facto era with fake news or deep fakes, a reality apathy, indeed a reality anaesthesia, emerges. Only a painful reality shock could get us out of it.
Han refers to great artists whose work is born of pain, such as Schubert, Van Gogh, and thinkers like Nietsche, Proust, Kafka, Meyrink. Pain also brings renewal, it is ‘the midwife of the new’.
People weaken by their self-indulgence, they soften. They don’t dare to show themselves naked, to make themselves vulnerable, to be woundable. They have become afraid of each other. According to Han, a life without death and pain is not human, but undead. Man abolishes himself in order to survive. Possibly he will reach immortality, but at the cost of life, he says.
Anyone can be the first to drop the visor and start living openly, receptively and feelingly. And if one does it, more will follow. Then the shock that is there to awaken us need not be so great. It can also be softer…
Byung-Chul Han occasionally goes too far in his book. For example, he calls the trend towards the ‘palliative’ a paradigm shift, whereas it is rather a sliding scale that has now slid so far that it suddenly becomes very clear what is happening. A real paradigm shift is based on the insight that things really can’t be done in the old way anymore. Then a crisis arises, either in an individual, or a group, or in society or humanity as a whole. The palliative society is a symptom of the end of a period that must be followed by a real paradigm shift.
Someone once wrote: Everything you do always gets worse. Not in the sense of getting worse, but of getting more. And this continues until it is inescapably clear. This goes both ways. At first it seems like a good idea: to be positive, to think positively, but then peculiarities arise, such as no longer saying ‘wrong’ but ‘not right’. And expressions such as: ‘That was not very elegant,’ where something has been dealt with disgracefully. Being really positive is not covering everything with sweet language, or justifying, or negotiating and polishing until nobody can be really satisfied anymore. Only people with an insight into the greater reality, behind all those incidents and tendencies, can be truly positive in life. These people do not make statements that sound like the affirmations some people make in front of the mirror, but state neutrally what is going on, if they say anything at all. That may be confrontational, but never personal.
An overgrown tendency makes us aware of what is wrong, and so do pain and shocking events. They wake us up. This is also how Byung-Chul Han shouts his wake-up call in our ears. Those who continue to cover up and explain away fall into a deep sleep. Then a situation arises as J. van Rijckenborgh once sketched: Like fat dreamers they hang on the spokes of the wheel of life. All lulled to sleep by indulgence.
In the spiritual sector, too, much is said in positive terms, which usually boils down to the fact that we are actually gods and if we remember that, we also receive divine assistance. As so often, it is not completely untrue, so people receive these words with eagerness. They are pleasing. Our innermost being is indeed divine and if we were to live from it, we would be so. But what honest person who observes his own practices can say that he is divine? Why should there be holy writings all over the world that mention a process, a ‘path’ to be followed, with obstacles and temptations? Can we skip it?
Did Buddha and Jesus need to be purified, but not us? Are there people who can drop all their attachments in one fell swoop, or is that a delusion?
If God is Love, then everything that happens is also love, although we do not see and feel it. Pain may be illusion, but then it is an illusion within an illusion, serving a loving purpose in that place. First we get a gentle touch and if we do not listen, a push. A kick we get only when we don’t want to do what we know is right.
Byung-Chul Han, The Palliative Society, Polity Press, Cambridge 2021
By his fervent, not very nuancing plea Han appears to be a lover of pain, but that is not accurate either.
In his indictment, he quotes many who, over the course of time, have said something about the meaning of pain and suffering. It has therefore become a small anthology. A few quotations:
Of all corporeal feelings, pain alone is like a navigable river which never dries up and which leads man down to the sea. Lust proves to be a dead end wherever man tries to act upon it.
You cannot laugh with all your heart unless you have first dug deep into the human pain.
Pain and happiness are brother and sister, twins, who grow up together, or, as in your case – stay small together.
The artificial cutting off of the elemental forces may prevent the gross touches and dispel the percussive shadows, but not the scattered light with which pain begins to fill space instead.
Here one detects the dreamy, painless and strangely exhausted well-being of which the air is narcotically full.
Pain is truth incarnate.
Viktor von Weizsäcker
Pain bestows its healing power where we do not suspect it.