Sunday, 16 August 2015

On Pain - or, No, Happiness is Not a Choice

In the video game Planescape: Torment, the following question (in potent iambic pentameter) emerges.

What can change the nature of a man?

(For “man”, read “human”.)

It is the work's central question, and the story unfolds in such a way as to imply there is no single correct answer; it is different for everybody.

Take a moment to think about this question for yourself. If you can answer it in one word, all the more elegant.

As for me, right now I can only give one answer.


* * * * *

The following may be hard to stomach, but treat it as a learning exercise and it might well make a great difference to somebody you meet someday. Perhaps even the difference between life and death.

Think back to all the times you tried to help somebody who was deeply depressed or consumed by suffering, especially the sufferings of the mind or heart that cannot be physically seen. What did you say to them?

Did you tell them that everyone goes through it?
Shame. Most types of pain today come from power abuses or hurtful social arrangements: things we have created. They are pains that nobody should have to go through.

Did you tell them that you've been there, so you know how it feels?
Shame. You have not been there as them. You have only been there as you. So you do not know how it feels.

Did you tell them to stop being dramatic?
Shame. Pain is different for everyone, and without strong evidence to the contrary, expressions of pain are to be taken as proportionate to the pain itself. Maybe the same problem would not cause you that much pain if it were you, but it is not you. It's a different person.

Did you tell them to think about how lucky they are? Or that they should be more grateful?
Shame. You are in no position to judge that, nor to read how much gratitude they do or do not feel. In a certain amount of pain you can hardly express gratitude, or much else for that matter.

Did you tell them it's all in their head?
Shame. Money, law, and most of everything that modern society is built on are also all in our heads. That doesn't make them any less real.

Did you tell them they should think about those who are in worse positions?
Shame. How does that address the causes of their pain? And what kind of person is it who feels better, rather than worse, by thinking of other people's misfortune?

Did you tell them that they do not listen?
Shame. Maybe they have good reasons for being unwilling or unable to follow your advice. Maybe what you are telling them is simply wrong.

Worst of all: did you get frustrated, and conclude that they simply do not want to be happy? That they are choosing to suffer?

Shame and degradation. These words are villainy.

Because pain removes choice. We have had so many occasions to learn this.

Spikes of pain can deprive you of choice momentarily. Perpetual pain can suppress it for hours, days, months or years. Perpetual, agonising pain can destroy it completely and never give it back – that is, madness. Pain can change the nature of a (hu)man.

It can change you dramatically. It can make you do things you would never in your right mind do. It can drive you to do things you categorically believe are wrong. That does not make them any less wrong. But it means if we want to stop them from happening, we must stop the pretence that they are nothing but the individual's choice, choice, choice.

Maya ritual blood-letting. The woman on the right is drawing a rope with thorns through her tongue. This pain appears to be chosen. Most pain today is not.

Our societies today, sad to say, are awful when it comes to matters of pain. The salts in the wounds we just looked at are words spoken repeatedly over many years both to myself and to people I have known in deplorable circumstances. For the humankind of today, these are no longer opinions. They are an atmosphere.

An atmosphere that could be called many things, but at its core is but one. Arrogance. We come to believe that we, and our societies, are right, and thus that people are wrong to suffer and suffer because they are wrong. We forget what actually matters.

We forget, for instance, that we are all flawed. None of us are in total control of all of our actions all of the time. We are all breakable. So we are each responsible for making a society that does not break people.

We forget we have created societies which do break people. Oppression, coercion, exclusion, reduction and arrogance: we have raised these engines of pain as the pillars of our communities and nations. We serve gender, which creates incredible pain. We encourage each other to not care about people, and take pride in it. Most pain today, and most of the above reactions to it, are a structural consequence of a social order that inflicts and normalises pain then buries people who suffer it under shame, guilt and stigma.

We forget that we are social creatures, and so for most of us our happiness and well-being are bound to our interdependence with others and the world around us. Happiness is not a choice. It is not something that relies only on factors inside you as an individual. We saturate the internet with a thousand photoshopped quotations and statements each day to drive it through our hearts that if a person is not happy, it is his or her own fault. This is an error and a delusion.

We forget that in a decent world, people matter. Not the egos of our nations. Not the commands of our authorities. Not the selfish accumulation of material stuff. People.

No one of us can change these huge social forces overnight. But you can still make a difference. When faced with those who suffer, resist the urge to judge, to trivialise, and to offer impossible advice. However frustrating it gets, however painful for you as well – remember you are human. Remember it is human to love.

So listen to them. Be there for them. Respect them for who they are. Respect their values for what they are, even if you cannot understand or relate to them; we are all different. Give them words and deeds of warmth and compassion. Hug them, if they let you. Maybe you cannot take their pain away, or solve their problems, or make them happy, but you can prove to them that at least some part of the world – that part that is you – does care. At the very least you will not make it more painful or alienating. In the depths of pain they may not be able to well show appreciation, but believe it: they will remember your kindness for the rest of their lives. And as for you, you will have set an example, improved the condition of humanity, added care to this world and so made it a better place. You will be heroic.

'Evil is just a word. Under the skin, it's simple pain.' This was the conclusion reached by Eleanor Lamb in Bioshock 2.

Perhaps not all evil. From time to time there may be the inherently monstrous Saurons or Gul'dans or Ganondorfs. But most villains in our world do not spawn that way. Rather they are people who have been broken – changed – by pain, or by its close allies: fear, or rage, or loneliness, or despair.

Video games provide many good studies in how this can happen. Consider for example the stories of Count Blumiere (Super Paper Mario); the Ur-Quan (Star Control); Sargeras (World of Warcraft); or Erubetie (Monster Girl Quest). Note that in each of these cases their pain was inflicted by society, be it their own or others. Pain can crush the love from the kindest and strongest of hearts, and in its place raise the will to do what each of these individuals either did or got very close to doing: annihilating worlds or killing millions of people.

Yes. It seems plausible that each of us, if subjected to a specific type and amount of pain, could be turned into an omnicidal maniac.

Dare we deny it? Looking at the history of our world, we can probably add many of our very worst tyrants and criminals to this category. This does not mean their cruelties were any less horrible. What it means is that we might want to stop comforting ourselves with the delusion they were just devils from birth and 100% to blame, and instead, start critiquing and changing the conditions that drove them down those paths. Because otherwise new devils will never stop coming.

To refuse to understand the causes and consequences of pain, thus to condemn so many and leave so many behind: that, now, is a choice our societies seem happy to make. They just haven't yet realised what it will cost them.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Abikoye, I am glad that you liked it. Keep up the good work on your own blog too, lots of interesting material there lately. I particularly liked the discussion on the study of history.