Pain is the ultimate truth.
One moment you are thinking about God and poetry and picturesque sunsets. You are talking eloquently about Thomas Mann and Manny Pacquiao. The next moment somebody delivers a Pacquiao-sized punch to your stomach. Art, nature and providence disappear instantly from your universe.
It doesn’t have to be violence. You could fall from your bar stool and break your wrist. You might receive a text message that your favorite child has lost a limb in a car accident. Your doctor could look up from a clinical report and tell you gloomily that you have three months, no more, to put your affairs in order.
In any case the joy lasts for a few hours, perhaps a few days. After a week or two, what lingers at best is a vague sense of satisfaction. That seems the painful truth. Happiness seems slow to come and swift to evaporate. In retrospect, it looks fleeting if not trivial. On the other hand, misery seems eternal, at the least, intermittent and enduring. How do you forget your gorgeous dream-house that a cloudburst destroyed in an hour? Or get over the slip of tongue that wrecked your splendid twenty-year career? How will you ever uproot the ‘rooted sorrow’ of the beautiful child you lost to a bungled surgery? Such pains persist for ever, cloud your brightest days and haunt your ill-slept nights.
I did an exercise with my friends. I asked them to tell me of something joyful that happened in their life ten years ago. They had great difficulty recalling an event. When I reduced the period to five years, they recalled an event or two, but cited them hesitantly, as if they were embarrassed to cite something so trivial. In sharp contrast, when I asked them to tell me something tragic or disastrous that happened to them ten years ago, they instantly told me of an accident, a business reverse or a death in the family. Shortening the time range brought a flood of painful recollections. I don’t think of my friends as a mournful lot, yet the range of their memories and the speed of their recall left me in little doubt about what weights more on their mind.
You have no doubt heard of the stoic response. Suffer in silence, bear your pain with fortitude. What does not kill you, they say, makes you stronger. Be brave and endure is the motto of all military training and the theme of many a popular movie. But we know that soldiers don’t return from wars quite intact. What does not kill you can still kill your finer side and bury your compassionate instinct. My friend Vinay in California told me of a ghastly car accident: he survived and is perhaps a more cautious driver now, but it has forever robbed him of the pristine joy of driving on the highway without a care in the world.
Nietzche spoke of pain as a liberator of the spirit, but doubted that it makes us better, adding that it makes us “profounder.” I don’t know that pain has liberated my spirit, but it has certainly let me see things in a new light, even let me see new things. When my father passed away, the growing hurt made me realize how much of his breadth of spirit – different people, varied ideas – I had both imbibed and taken for granted. When, more recently, my colleague and friend Dilip closed his flagging eyes, how much his quiet guidance had supported me in my darkest days. I have come to love Léon Bloy’s remarkable words, “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” If you love and lose your love, you will know right away what the French gadfly meant about discovering new spaces in your heart.
I think of all this with a sense of shock. All the things we now think of, individually and socially, -- whatever else they do – can bring us neither reduced pain nor greater
happiness: better health, greater wealth, faster learning, higher intelligence, superior technology. None of these, alas, has the capability to make us happier and more tranquil than our neanderthal ancestors.
Our pain might continue a while longer.