How We Talk About Suffering in the Secular World

How We Talk About Suffering in the Secular World March 31, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from Humans of Bombay, a website inspired by Humans of New York, but actually taking place in–wait for it!–Mumbai, or as many of the locals have known it for most of their lives, Bombay.

There are a lot of differences in the stories posted on Humans of New York and Humans of Bombay. I think we’re all more or less familiar with the range on the former–the stories of addiction and poverty and homelessness, midlife malaise and lost loves, immigrant triumph and immigrant horror, youth wondering what to do with their lives, older folks wondering where their lives went wrong, kids saying the most adorable things, people dying and being born, and a lot of fatigue with the culture of work.

On the latter, there are still goofy stories of siblings and lifelong friends, lovers and fiercely fighting parents. There are, however, also a lot more arranged marriages, and in-law-families-from-hell. A lot more stories about girls being given a chance to go to school only because they had fathers who believed in them, or who earned their fathers’ belief. There are stories, too, about victims of acid attacks, and a lot about spousal abuse. And families watching child after child die for want of medical care. And families trying to save their children right now, against all odds. And children with disabilities in a country with few resources to help them achieve economic stability.

What I also find a lot of on the latter, though, are stories of contentment with very little. Old men and women who have spent decades working the same precarious job–cooking or selling one item, day in and day out–and who speak with great calm and pride about the lives they built on that work. The children and even grandchildren they’ve supported. The pleasure they’ve received from having done the same small thing with so much consistency and care for so long. The joy they take in their ongoing strength to do this one thing, irrespective of how few opportunities life ever gave them for more.

I have a complicated relationship with these stories… because they make me feel grounded. They give me perspective.

And yet, these are people, not object lessons.

Do we have a vocabulary, in the secular world, for drawing strength from other folks’ stories without devolving into what is sometimes called “inspiration porn”?

How Should We Talk about Suffering?

Last week I used a rather niche-entertainment example–Star Trek–to argue that we need to break from the “franchise” of faith and build our own narratives about the human condition. And how we address human suffering is one of the most important.

Christianity in particular has many ugly narratives around suffering. We all know the Tiny Tim example: the idea, in A Christmas Carol, that it is good for people to see a little boy crippled by malnutrition due to an horrifically inegalitarian culture, that they might recall he who made lame men walk and blind men see (i.e. Christ). Dickens was not a fan of class-climbing (he felt that educating the lower classes caused more problems than it fixed, and desired instead a system of brotherly charity to ease earthly suffering), so it’s not surprising that Tiny Tim wasn’t placed in parliament with this lesson, inviting representatives to consider laws to improve the lives of children like him. Instead, the meditation emerges in church, with the idea being that the faithful can then meditate on this theme, pray for a miracle, and leave the rest to their god.

Secular folk raised in the New Atheist school are also well-seasoned in Catholicism’s own, often fetishistic approach to suffering, as something less to be alleviated and more to be glorified as that which brings humanity closer to Christ (a practice that Christopher Hitchens excoriated in his thorough indictment of Mother Teresa).

But I would be going against my own appeal, in that essay on the franchise analogy, if I dwelled upon these religious examples too long. I don’t want to build an approach to suffering in contrast with Abrahamic approaches to the same. I just want we who aspire to a better practice of humanism–whatever our religious stance–to look calmly and directly at the fact of suffering itself, and to reflect together on how best we can integrate this harsh reality into the stories we tell about the human condition.

Why “Inspiration Porn” Is a Thing, and a Bad Thing at That

The term “inspiration porn” is attributed to Australian comedian and disability-rights activist Stella Young, who in 2012 wrote that

Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary – like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball – carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try”. Increasingly, they feature the Hamilton quote [“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”]

Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”.

But as a concept, it’s obviously far older, and includes stories of people who found contentment in what we would consider far humbler lives–lives we would never want for ourselves. We can all imagine the scene I’m suggesting: a person like “Lucy,” say, in middle-management at a local college, who’s pissed off that Harold, an administrator with less experience, got the toss-up promotion in the end; and that Alexa-from-spin-class posted on Facebook about the amazing designer furniture she’d just bought for her new home, while Lucy was recently hit with a major transmission issue on the second car that’s putting in jeopardy the family vacation in December. Our dear Lucy flicks through online news in a coffee shop and lingers on a photo essay maybe in the Washington Post, or a site like Humans of Bombay, or a short video about a feel-good initiative in a developing nation, and… for a second… everything feels better.

Wow, look at them, laying bricks / selling tea / finally with indoor lighting! They have so little, but they’re so content! They’ve got the real riches in life, don’t they?

And then she posts a picture of her cappuccino with an inspirational quote, to let everyone in her life know that Everything Is Good, even if she might have to cut down the family’s Bahamas getaway by a couple days after all.

Just as with the disabled children in Young’s example, the “inspirations” here–the people born into cultures with fewer educational and job options–are simply props for Lucy to feel better about herself. Maybe, if she’s feeling generous, she’ll donate to an international non-profit to help improve their outcomes and opportunities. But more likely she’ll simply use the anecdote with another friend or family member, also frustrated by their own life. And so the humans from these online stories need to be in their hard-luck subject-positions, in order to let Lucy’s community feel better about its own.

You might have heard how a certain sitting U.S. president seems to have inspired many in his base to fixate on such a hierarchy of suffering–to draw strength from the idea that they might be having a tough time in the current economy, but at least [X] is suffering more. And yet, as I hope “Lucy” plainly illustrates, this is hardly a new behaviour. We’re all very good at drawing strength from thinking of ourselves as higher up the food chain. It’s just that some of us like to fantasize that those with less are also happier somehow, more enlightened amid their suffering, so that we feel better about the fact of suffering itself.

(Darwin was famously sentimental in this regard, writing in On the Origin of Species, when confronted with the horror of so much mass destruction in the animal kingdom, that “[w]hen we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death in generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”)

But how much better is this approach, really, than the satisfaction some hurting people derive from knowing that other demographics are hurting more? And by “better” I mean… how much more constructive is this feel-good use of others’ lots in life?

Treating Worldly Suffering with More Respect

I’m picking on the Lucys of the world, aren’t I? But I too gain perspective when I read about other people in different lives–so what line in the sand am I trying to draw between her approach and my (aspirational) own?

I argued a couple weeks ago that we need a humanism of anti-desperation, and in that essay I used an interaction with a family of local street vendors to explain why our primary responsibility, as humanists, must be to alleviate suffering in the world. Months back, I told a far broader story about the human condition, a story about how to grapple with loss in an indifferent cosmos. What both share–and what I strive to be consistent about in my everyday exposure to the suffering and limited options of others–is a recognition of human simultaneity, and the responsibilities it engenders.

For example:

While I’m scrolling through my messages, desperately awaiting a WhatsApp response that could change my job prospects or personal life for the better, I’m passing someone begging with sweets for change simply “pa’ comer” (to eat).

And while I’m grumpily leaving the apartment at 5 a.m. for a full teaching day that will have me moving all over the city, returning at 9:30 p.m. to start the process anew at 5 a.m. the next day, I’m greeting a street vendor of fried pastries who never went to school, who works his stand seven days a week, and who always has a smile on his face and warm wishes for my day.

“Inspiration porn” wants us to measure these lives against each other. To argue that one person is happier, or to advocate from another’s example for being content with what we have. But these are hierarchical approaches to human life, and they have complicated consequences. Certainly, they don’t make all of us more satisfied with our lot, or more generous with our share of the economic pie. In fact, for many in North America, these approaches only inspire guilt and depression. “Look at all I have compared to [X], but I’m still not happy, so what the hell is wrong with me?

What’s wrong is the hierarchy itself.

It’s thinking of each other’s opportunities and outcomes in so comparative a manner.

But what if we could remember, instead, that this all family we’re talking about?

My twentieth cousin, say, begging on the street after being displaced from his home, and after watching a young man bleed out on the journey over, for failure to give two others with knives what little he had fast enough.

Or my fortieth cousin, married at sixteen into an abusive marriage, and doomed to lose two children to treatable diseases before she can escape with the third and build a business to support herself.

What do we generally aspire to do with family, if not to be more present? If not to try to improve the family’s overall standing in the hope that we can then improve the lives of everyone within it?

I am grounded when I read the likes of Humans of Bombay for two reasons:

  1. It gives me updates on my greatly extended family on the other side of the world, going through problems I sometimes forget exist simultaneous to my own; and thus,
  2. it gives me an opportunity to reflect on whether I am sufficiently contributing to the overall betterment of my family on whole–both with what I contribute to the world, and how I manage my own setbacks therein.

And I probably make mistakes, sometimes, when I try to talk about this approach to suffering with others. Sometimes I know I give the impression I want least to make–that I ever think “wow, my problems are rough, but at least I don’t have to deal with [X]!”

Because I have no idea which of us, ultimately, is the happiest.

But I do have a sense of what happens when I let my own suffering deepen my desire to be present with others’ limitations in turn.

When I treat stories about humans with fewer opportunities less as tests or edifying lessons, and more as updates on the general welfare of my people.

Looked at this way, suffering is never about me or them: it’s about us–how far we’ve come, where we’re struggling, and how far we still have to go to improve “the family” on whole.

And thus, the fact of human suffering should never be seen as a justification for contentment or gratitude for one’s own lot.

Rather, it becomes a question in our stories.

So!, it says–to all of us, wherever our brief and wondrous circumstances find us: Now you know where we all stand. 

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  • Positivist

    So true!! Thank you for so clearly articulating what’s wrong with inspiration porn. So much better to marvel at the human spirit and reach out to our fellow traveller.

  • “and reach out to our fellow traveller.”

    Oh, my heart. I was starting to think I was the only one who used that term that way!

    You’ve certainly achieved such a result here by reading and responding, Positivist. Thank you so much for your presence in the cosmos!