In Christian culture, suffering is in fact a positive value. The Christian martyrs in the first centuries of our era showed, so to speak, their suffering in front of Roman persecutions. And that suffering granted them a holy status. So suffering in Christian, especially the capacity of the body to display great suffering, bestows automatically great value on your existence.
Add to this the fact that the Christ suffered for all of us. So suffering is a kind of imitation of the life of the Christ. And by suffering, you also feel that you are saving maybe perhaps others. That culture idiom becomes impossible to understand in modern secular cultures because our model of selfhood is based on a completely different public philosophy. And it is based roughly, I would say, on utilitarianism, which guides most of public policy and which guides also, curiously enough, the private practice of therapy. How?
Public policy is guided by utilitarianism in the sense that quite often its aim is to maximize the utility or the pleasure of the maximum number of human beings. And to minimize the suffering seems like a fairly simple philosophy but that’s what is behind utilitarianism. Namely that we should prefer anything that causes pleasure to things that cause suffering with, of course, you know, all the problems that are attendant to that view.
The Simpsons might be more enjoyable, but of course Shakespeare is more valuable. So a utilitarian philosophy has difficulties, in fact, accounting for the fact that many activities are more valuable than they are enjoyable.
And so the question is why should we prefer them if they don’t provide us with pleasure? So just to go back to my point, this is one of the guiding principles of public policy. In psychotherapy also, there has been this implicit philosophy that the mind or the psyche has a lots of self-destructive tendencies.
A great deal of therapeutic culture has very much echoed with and resonated with some strands of utilitarian philosophy in making people much more aware of their needs, interest, well-being and pleasure. This is obviously in stark contrast to say, a culture in which self-sacrifice is valued, for example, the capacity of a woman to display ostentatiously her self-sacrifice. In other words, her capacity to bracket her needs, her aspirations, her ambitions, is deeply valued.
So what is the consequence of all that on romantic love? In pre-modern culture, I would say that romantic suffering is always a part of that great cultural project of suffering. So you love someone and they don’t reciprocate your love, as in courtly love, for example. And when they don’t reciprocate your love, it does not crush you. It does not annihilate you. It does not negate your being. On the contrary, for the knight who is worshiping a lady, it is the opportunity for the knight to show the greatness and nobility of his character by loving a lady who does not reciprocate.
In romantic culture, you suffer a great deal, but that suffering points, so to speak, to the greatness of your character, to your capacity to have character. In our culture, I think that suffering is interpreted almost in the opposite way. Someone who would suffer a great deal is deemed to be immature. Someone who is not fully worked out their unconscious issues, someone who is not independent enough, someone who has – who is not self enough self-aware. Suffering, psychic suffering in whatever form it comes, saying choosing a man or woman who is already – who is unavailable, for example, is considered to be a psychic deficiency.
So I would say that what we lack greatly is a kind of system of recycling of suffering. And by recycling, I mean the capacity to use that suffering to enlarge or beautify yourself. Instead it is viewed as something that should be disposed of and worked on by psychologists once more.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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