In doing some reading about wild bullshit theories, I came across one that seems a lot less bullshit-y than the others. The primary idea of this theory is that suffering is unnecessary and that someday we will, through science, make it obsolete.
Last week I awoke to my 6 year old son having what seemed to be some kind of asthma attack. He doesn’t have asthma, so I knew that wasn’t it, but nonetheless he couldn’t breathe and required a trip to the ER. He ended up having a minor respiratory virus and after a few hours with the kind doctors and nurses at our local children’s hospital, we were ready to go home. Having spent 8 years taking kids to the hospital for various this or that, I didn’t think much of it. Inconvenient? Sure.. Life threatening? Not anymore, but maybe not so long ago it would have been.
The next morning while driving my kids to school my oldest was asking about his brother’s trip to the hospital the night before and if he was still sick. I casually explained to him how what happened the night before wasn’t really a big deal because we have medicine. Scientists have dedicated their lives to figuring out breathing treatments to be prescribed to sick little kids at 3am when they wake up unable to breathe properly. Science is great, hooray for science.
I could tell he spent the day thinking about this because he had more questions when I picked him up from school that afternoon. He wanted to know if anyone has ever died from what his little brother had the night before. “I don’t know, probably.” People spent thousands of years dying from silly bullshit that we can now fix with a 20 minute drive to a well-stocked hospital designed specifically for children at any hour of the day or night. In 1918 almost 500 million people came down with the flu and it’s estimated that about 50 million of them died worldwide. Think about that. Like the entire population of Canada and a few US states being wiped out by something that we now think “eh should I get the flu shot this year or not”.
So the theory I mentioned earlier is one called The Hedonistic Imperative. The primary idea of this theory is that we will eventually be able to wipe out all suffering in the world through science and genetic engineering. It sounds crazy until you think about what’s in your medicine cabinet. I take an anti-depressant that limits my ability to suffer mentally and emotionally. When I experienced an orthopedic injury in 2015 I was prescribed opiates to limit my ability to suffer physically. When it was time to surgically repair the aforementioned injury, science put me to sleep to limit my ability to suffer through the pain of incision and muscle manipulation, etc…
Two hundred years ago, before the development of potent synthetic pain-killers or surgical anaesthetics, the notion that “physical” pain could be banished from most people’s lives would have seemed no less bizarre. Most of us in the developed world now take its daily absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as “mental” pain, too, could one day be superseded is equally counter-intuitive. The technical option of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of political policy and ethical choice.hedweb.com
Like most theories, it looks a little different in practice. If you’ve been paying attention to the opioid crisis in the US, you can see how the human element plays into these ideals. When I first saw the surgeon for the injury I mentioned above, he very casually handed me a 30 day rx for vicodin. If you’ve ever taken vicodin, it’s some heavy shit. It feels…. wonderful. Too wonderful. It quickly became my first-hand experience with how people become so easily addicted to these things. The same can be said for medications to treat mental illness. Limiting our ability to feel just makes us want to feel more. Dosages go up, behaviors get riskier, etc and so on.
When you consider the ability to end all suffering, you have to wonder if it is “an issue of political policy and ethical choice” not to do so, or is it actually the opposite? If your only options were bliss or bliss, how would you develop character or resilience of any kind? I don’t want to get cliche here but I tend to believe suffering is necessary and actually good.
Toronto hardcore band Fucked Up has been doing things differently since 2001. Aside from somehow consistently putting out great record after great record, they have ventured into blending art and punk in a way that most bands haven’t taken the time and energy to do in as meaningful a way. In 2006 they began releasing a series of 12″ records that were part of what they call the Zodiac series. Do yourself a favor and go get lost in it because it’s wonderful, but the primary reason that I bring it up is that my favorite of this series is one about suffering. Year of the Ox tells the narrative of an ox doing ox things, pulling weight around, pushing through mud, etc… but also eventually using these experiences to break free and live a life of meaning.
i stop to breathe, to take a break
to scan the crowd that is my wake
i see a life without the ache
and wonder if it was a mistake
The song ends with a triumphant reprise:
you can’t fly, because you are an ox
i can fly, because i am an ox
Our suffering helps make us. The bad lets us feel the good. Grieve and grow from it and use that growth to grieve and grow again. This ended up being more inspirational than I expected it to be. My first thought when I see people write from a standpoint of having anything figured out is “eh fuck off, guy”, but suffering is a universal experience to which we can all relate in one way or another. Finding ways to survive and grow from it is imperative.
The painting at the top of this piece is “Self” by the incredibly talented Antony Micallef. Support him and support Fucked Up so that they never stop making records.