Tag Archives: suffering

No hierarchy of distress

Some years ago, I spent two terms on a course for abuse survivors, run by the Freedom Program. It really helped me get over what had happened and move on, and it taught me a great deal. One of the things I learned was this: Everyone there felt that other people present were far worse off than them.

Everyone had stories, and those stories were ghastly, heartbreaking and all too real. They were all far worse than anything I’d been through. But then an odd thing started happening, because other women, on hearing my stories, would say they thought it was far worse than what had happened to them. This shocked me. We all thought we’d probably deserved what had happened to us, but refused to accept that anyone else could possibly have deserved what happened to them. Through this we all began to question our feelings about our own experiences. It was a challenging process.

The idea that someone else has it worse, and we therefore shouldn’t make too much fuss may be relevant if you’ve merely broken a nail, or been slowed down by bad traffic. Perspective is useful in face of middle class, first world problems. However, that same line of thought absolutely does function to keep people in dangerous and damaging places. After all, it’s not like he cut you, other women get cut. Compared to being raped by a stranger, forced sex from someone you know really isn’t so bad. It was just a slap, not the same as being beaten up. It was only being beaten up, it’s not like you died…

Women who were imprisoned will say how much worse it must have been for women who were beaten, who think the victims of sexual assault were much worse off, but they in turn look to the women who lost their children in court battles, and feel that was much worse and the women who lost their children are so thankful that at least no one destroyed their mental health and the women whose minds were broken are busy feeling fortunate compared to the ones who were made prisoners in their own homes.

There is no hierarchy here. This is no reason for telling 90% of the victims to shut up and recognise that only one of these was really bad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering is used to make us shut up and stop complaining. I was hit by one only this week – I should be grateful because I’m not picking plastic off rubbish dumps in a third world country. But here’s a thing: The shitty situation in my country is not a separate issue, and tackling problems here would also tackle our habit of creating this kind of waste and sending it abroad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering breaks down the connections between problems and obscures the truth that these things are all connected. None of the things that are wrong in this world exist in a vacuum.

Think properly about the misery of the traffic jam, and you might indeed come to question commuter culture, city planning, economic pressures, modern economic models, international trade agreements and the whole structure of modern society. You can do that starting from anywhere. Don’t look for the hierarchy, look for the connections. Look for how your problem is related to someone else’s, and is part of it, feeding the same mess and creating misery. That way we can start to see what small things we might solve, that lead to actually fixing even the biggest things that are wrong. Most of those big things are gatherings of small problems, too, and it is the act of not taking the small problems seriously that prevents us from getting anywhere near the big stuff.

In Defence of Pretty Things

There are people in the Pagan community who feel that we need to get away from all the lightweight fluff and focus on that which is dark and serious. In fact, so great is our need for darkness, they believe, that they will supply it by wounding, attacking, attempting to humiliate and denigrate. Now, being someone who does not believe there is a one true way, I think everyone else’s beliefs are their own business. I’m delighted to share ideas, to listen to other views, I’m always open to taking onboard new ideas, but I can’t be converted because of that ultimate disbelief about ultimate truth. I’m also not going to try and convert you, because I don’t know that there isn’t one true way and maybe you have found it – if so, all power to you. However, that doesn’t mean I’m happy to accept psychological violence.

I could write you thousands of words about the dark things in this world. Pain and suffering, injustice, cruelty, those who died too young and those who died too slowly. The things that went heart breakingly wrong, the beautiful places now covered in tarmac. But you know this. You know it because you have your own stories too, of things you have survived and horrors you’ve seen second hand happening to people you care about. Odds are you’ve listened to the news, and there’s material enough there for weeping over, most days. The world is not short of dark things, or of suffering.

Most of us cannot hope to make much difference in face of that. Getting up every day with the intention of doing something good is not fluffy and lightweight. It is a heroic commitment to combatting outrageous odds. It is a daily battle with apathy and despair for many of us, and yet we show up and try anyway. To take your pain and try to transmute it into beauty – as so many creative people do, is an act of courage and defiance. I have read your poems, and seen your art works. I have listened to your songs, and I know something of the bravery of inspired effort that goes on, under-recognised, day to day. It takes guts to keep doing the right things when the systems themselves create pressure to cheat, lie, abuse, crush, denigrate and generally ruin. The short cuts and easy options abound, and most of them have a dash of dishonour in the mix. The right things often call for effort, a little sacrifice, a lot of caring. Day in, and day out. Thats not fluff, it’s often the most important work we do.

I love the cute, fluffy, warm-hearted memes that float around on facebook and other such places. I love the phrases of affirmation and the pictures of pretty landscapes people post. When I am low, I go to facebook for comfort, safe in the knowledge that there will be a beautiful bit of art to look at, or a gorgeous craft item to feel inspired by, or some warm bit of humanity that someone has shared from George Takai. Best of all, there are cute pictures of cats coupled with amusing captions. A reminder that there is more to life than the darkness. That humanity is capable of loveliness in many forms. That my friends are splendid human beings who care, and who, in small gestures, are trying to contribute to the good stuff, not pile on the shit.

To people who think we need to experience more darkness, I say this. You are making assumptions. You don’t know what the rest of my life looks like, or anyone else’s. You don’t know how ‘real’ the rest of it is – you measure realness by suffering, and yet you have no way to measure what portion of pain anyone else has been served. I can only assume that people who champion darkness actually have very cossetted, comfortable lives and have yet to be broken open by something awful. If you want darkness, get off facebook, step away from the social networks and go listen to the news. Step outside somewhere you can encounter other people for real. Try looking at a swan’s nest surrounded by plastic bottles, just as a small and easy start. Try looking for a creature that is extinct already. The real world is full of pain, it is out there waiting for you and all you have to do is care enough to let it in. Better work on that than trying to put the rest of us ‘right’.

When your heart has been broken enough times, perhaps you will come to realise that sometimes, the best thing to find is a pretty thing that some other human being has seen fit to make, in defiance of the shit.

Misery and religion

No matter what faith or path you follow, the relationship between religion and suffering comes up sooner or later. One of the atheist arguments is that religion clearly doesn’t work, god does not intervene, cruelty and injustice continue. What many religions offer are ideas about the true source of human unhappiness, and how to deal with it. The idea that you can be saved from suffering by following the edicts of a religion doesn’t stand any scrutiny at all. What you might get are some tools that enable you to handle it better.

How a religion formulates its relationship with pain is very telling. Is it good for you, as the older book religions sometimes suggest? Or is it something we can and should avoid, as modern society seems generally keener on as an idea? Do we need pain and misery in our lives to make us rounded, spiritual people, or do we need to overcome it in order to achieve permanent happiness? How a religion, or for that matter a religious person handles this issue can be quite telling.

There is a theory that by normalising suffering and emphasising the universal nature of it, religions comfort us with the knowledge that we are not alone. True happiness is impossible in this lifetime, we can only hope for a nicer afterlife. The trouble with this theory, is how readily it lends itself to keeping people in misery whilst telling them that it’s good for them. Compassionate sharing is one thing, oppression another and there are times when it’s not easy to see what you’ve got.

Druidry doesn’t have one clear answer. “Nature is good,” the famous Reformed Druid tenet, suggests that anything natural is to be accepted, if not celebrated. The good with the bad. It is, after all, perfectly natural to suffer. Calls to compassion and service however, are very precisely calls to alleviate suffering.

My experience of Druidry is that we tend to be pragmatic about pain. You won’t catch many druids seriously ascribing it to past life misbehaviour or ineffable plans. We can be collectively quite ruthless when it comes to looking for our own involvement in what happens to us. We tend not to blame the gods, but look at what we could have, or can do differently. The sphere of action is entirely human, even if we do seek advice and input from elsewhere. Druidry does not encourage people towards spiritual masochism, or to the willing acceptance of needless burdens of suffering. It does encourage us towards making the best of what we have, and doing what we can for ourselves, and reaching out to others for help, guidance and support when we need it. And to offer the same.

Honouring nature, we recognise that all things have their season, for good or ill. All things pass. Life can be short and brutal, but is no less beautiful for that. Nature’s predators seem cruel if you are inclined to empathise with the cute, fluffy, ill-defended tasty things. Suffering is natural. Not wanting to suffer is equally natural. Being afraid of suffering and doing self destructive things in a misguided bid to dodge fate, is probably also natural. Getting yourself killed thanks to an irrational belief in your own immortality is natural. Once you start looking at it, nature is vast and many faceted. You can find any example you want out there somewhere. Being a druid does not mean emulating whatever you happen to see other bits of nature experimenting with. It’s the thinking, feeling, compassionate attempt to make the best of things.

Needless suffering helps no one. Challenges well met carry us forwards. Caring is the one thing most likely to open you to pain, and the one thing most likely to ultimately save you from it. And Druidry, is knowing this and doing something with it. The something, of course, is always going to be down to the individual to decide.