Refusing to make the suffering stop

Compassion is the most dangerous emotion we can experience today. What an awful thing to think, but I see no way to avoid this realization.

Refusing to make the suffering stop

We find ourselves awash in an ocean of guilt.

Other beings must die so that we can live. Our mothers give birth to us in travail, we breath air that was meant for someone else, and daily our desires confront the others in our lives, complicating and confounding existence with our every move. We are always already complicit in others' suffering, for to live is to be impure.

Compounding this cruel reality, we find ourselves situated in an economic state of affairs where we must prey upon one another for our most basic needs.

If you're an owner, you subsist from the surplus-value produced by your laborers.

If you're a manager, your boss enriches himself from your labor while you take a cut of the labor of your subordinates.

As a laborer, you must sell your labor in order to receive a fraction of its value in return, and then you must turn around and take those proceeds to the store to purchase goods and services.

Modern living confronts us with people going through the repetitive and soul-crushing motions of stocking shelves, swiping items, folding clothes, and wiping floors, all while becoming the regular target of abuse from customers and from each other. Those who do not whore their bodies and minds in this way are deemed worse than dogs, unworthy of food or care.

This is not even to mention the thousands of other jobs we never see — the mother wearing a headset while being screamed at by an angry customer on a support line, the old man manually typing data into a spreadsheet over and over, the middle aged man pouring concrete who pops another opioid for the pain in his knees, and the mindless shuffling of papers and emails which create the silent backdrop for our entire economy.

What we would give to simply make it go away. What we would do to not carry this burden. But our society's brutality is thrown in our face whenever we walk by a homeless person ranting in the street or the exhausted nurse standing alone at the bus stop.

The rich can pay to take a detour around such sights — taxi, Uber, private jet, helicopter, high-rise apartment, you name it — but we of lesser means must wade in the squalor everyday.

It wears on you, to step onto the public train and immediately be hit with the smell of warm piss. Just like last week. And the week before that.

You can't avoid it when society's dysfunction is strewn all over the place with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. We must not underestimate how much this experience profoundly warps us as people. Eventually, we start to feel like it might be our fault.

Compassion is the most dangerous emotion we can experience today.

What an awful thing to think, but I see no way to avoid this realization.

As we victimize and are victimized, like crabs clawing at each other in a bucket, we begin to think that something, anything must be done. The itch becomes so bad that we absolutely have to scratch it. But can one person change the world? These structural problems can't be solved through internal tinkering and small adjustments, even where those possible (the tiniest of changes are now becoming Herculean).

There is a saying which goes "the purpose of a system is what it does" — instead of saying that a system is designed to achieve an objective which is constantly fails at, perhaps we ought to understand systems as doing precisely what they are engineered to do? If we find ourselves in a system which seems to exacerbate mental anguish and dysfunction, broken families, misery, depression, meaningless work, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide… well, what do we think the system is really for?

Perhaps it has already told us.

Orwell's image of a boot stamping on a human face forever comes to mind here as we stare into the abyss of the absolutely colossal mess we've put ourselves in, and it seems like this massively multi-player slow-motion catastrophe has taken on a life of its own — no human or even group of humans can stop this machine anymore.

In such a profoundly dark situation what could be more tempting than to apostatize? At any moment we can choose to walk away from the faith which believes that somehow God is at work bringing His kingdom into this world. What sort of a God would want to enter this world? It's easier to step on the fumi-e, become a collaborator, and console ourselves with the private meaning-making mechanism of our choice — I give to charity, I meditate, I just like to fish, I go on mission trips, I read philosophy, I go to raves, I take LSD, and so on and so forth. Never mind the groaning of the others. They've probably apostatized already too, right? Best to get it over with, and try to mitigate the suffering as much as we can.

Making the suffering go away… that's always what it's about, isn't it? When you strip it all away, we're all dealing with suffering here. Buddhism has as its core a technique for release from suffering. Christianity has as its core God's redemption of our suffering through His own suffering. Transhumanism prophecies an end of suffering through the limitless ingenuity of human technological advancement. Capitalism holds out the elimination of want through a perpetual abundance machine. The State promises an end of suffering through the continual provision of care and security. At bottom, we're all secretly hoping that we can get back to the Womb, where we didn't need or want for anything, perfectly submerged in warmth, bliss, and comfort. But because we traversed those few inches through our mother's birth canal, emerging into a cold hospital room under a bright line, now we've been thrown into the terror of existence against our will. How can we just make the suffering stop? Why not just step on the fumi-e?

The first step in spiritual life is refusing to make the suffering stop.

Without the joy to confront suffering and the love to resist the temptation to foreclose the Other's suffering too, we will never get anywhere. The drive to eliminate suffering will devour us if we give ourselves over to it. As long as we continue to opt out of the struggle, we miss out on something vital which makes us the strangest animals on God's green earth.

Today we must choose to press into the contradiction.

What could we find further up and further in?

These words first appeared in my book "Ideology and Christian Freedom: a Theo-political reading of Shusaku Endo's Silence," which uses Endo's novel Silence as a way to interrogate contemporary questions of freedom, nationalism, and subjectivity. If you find these ideas interesting, please pick up a copy today!

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