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Rejecting the Virtue of Suffering

Rejecting the Virtue of Suffering

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Published by: okkar1 on Nov 25, 2009
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05/21/2010

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Rejecting the Virtue of Suffering
by David Edwards and Media Lens
Truly, Madly, Deeply Above All Madly
British people are not good at happiness. According to research published in 2002, aroundone-third of British people suffer from serious depression at any one time. A 25-year-old in2002 was between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression than a25-year-old in 1950. It seems that young people with the highest living standards since recordsbegan are deeply miserable during ‘the best years of their lives’.We can learn a lot about the root causes of this epidemic by comparing Western andnon-Western approaches to mental suffering. Doing so, I believe, reveals a remarkable secretat the heart of Western unhappiness.A clue is provided in psychologist Mark Tallis’ book, Love Sickness: Love As A Mental Illness.Tallis notes that mental illness is often accepted, even celebrated, as a feature of romantic love: “Thus, in the well-worn contemporary phrase truly, madly, deeplymadness is supposed to be as significant an indicator of love’sauthenticity as honesty and depth. We do not want love to be rational.We want it to be audacious, overwhelming, improvident, andunpredictable.” (Tallis, Century, 2004, p.3)Tallis points out that mental states commonly associated with ‘falling in love’ are remarkablysimilar to states associated with mental illness: “In the first euphoric weeks (or even months) of love the symptoms of mania are clearly evident. These include expansive mood, inflatedself-esteem, decreased need for sleep, a pressure to talk, racingthoughts, distractibility, increased activity (particularly sexual), and ageneral disregard for the consequences of pleasure-seeking... Only fourof the above (including expansive mood) experienced for one week willbe sufficient to meet... diagnostic criteria for a manic episode.” (p.57)Love is “unique among those mental states that we generally assume to be positive”, Tallissuggests, in that, “Although we celebrate love, we also recognise that it can resemble anillness.” (p.59)
 
Remarkably, we actually
celebrate
the “madness” of love - we like to love “truly, madly, deeply”.The mad, suffering aspect is deemed to be precisely a sign of the authenticity and depth of ourlove.In other words, and this is what interests me, we view our suffering in love as natural, virtuous,even glorious.
Hypocrisy Nausea - And Other Virtuous Ailments
It seems to me that Tallis is badly mistaken, however, in arguing that love is unique in beingperceived as a positive mental state that also resembles an illness. Anger, also, is assumed bymany people to be positive, empowering, protecting, and it also is understood to resemble anillness. Peace and human rights campaigners, for example, are fond of describing how theiranger is such that they are “sickened and nauseated” by government hypocrisy. A favoured wayof communicating intense outrage is to declare that a government statement leaves us feeling “physically sick” and “despairing”.Levels of anger dragging us to the point of sickness and despair are clearly deemed virtuous -indicative of our passionate commitment.It seems to me that, no matter how traumatic and unbearable the experience, there is also apart of us that considers the suffering of grief to be in a sense right and good. We feel that ourgrief and suffering bear witness to the depth of our love to have a balanced, happy mind isdeemed a kind of betrayal, almost a sign of indifference.The possibility I am suggesting, then, is that one of the reasons we in the West suffer so muchmental unhappiness is that we often believe suffering is virtuous, a sign of our passion, integrityand compassion.The idea that our belief in the virtue of suffering might lie at the root of much of our unhappinesswas raised in my mind by my encounter with Mahayana Buddhism. According to this highlysophisticated system of thought, happiness, not suffering, is synonymous with virtue. Instead,wherever there is unhappiness, Buddhism argues, we will actually find an excess of self-concern, of selfishness.This idea struck me as inherently plausible because it seemed to me that one of the mostpowerful engines driving the unhappy, self-pitying mind was precisely the sense that it wasfundamentally right, perhaps even righteous - that it was rooted, for example, in a refusal to
 
accept the lies of cynical politicians in the case of anger; that it was rooted in the intensity of passion for a lost loved one, in the case of romantic attachment.This sense of the rightness, the basic virtuousness, of some forms of unhappiness, sets up akind of psychological "force field" protecting the unhappy mind we don’t fully
want
to be freeof suffering because we believe it has real merit.The interesting thing about the Buddhist analysis is that it punctures this righteously miserablebubble, countering the self-pitying mind with a very blunt statement: Suffering is
always
,ultimately, rooted in an excess of self-concern.Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for example, comments: “Self-cherishing makes us feel depressed whenever our wishes are notfulfilled, we fail in our ambitions, or our life does not turn out the way weplanned. If we examine all the times we have been miserable we shalldiscover that they are characterised by an excessive concern for ourown welfare.” (Gyatso, Eight Steps To Happiness, Tharpa, 2000, p.86)This is like a salutary bucket of cold water in the face of our self-pity: we are not unhappy simplybecause the world is unjust, not just because terrible things have happened to us, but becausewe suffer from an excessive concern for our own welfare.
The Art Of Upsetting Yourself 
If we are able to perceive the basic truth of this point, it can help us break the closed circle of the self-pitying mind allowing us to emerge from suffering.When someone insults us, for example, we feel we are right and justified in feeling upsetbecause, after all, the other person has been abusive. We say things like: ‘She upset me.’ Butwriting some 1,000 years ago, the philosopher Aryadeva makes an interesting point: “Though hearing harsh words is unpleasant, they are
not
intrinsicallyharmful, otherwise the speaker would also be harmed. Thus, when thedamage done by anger comes from one’s own preconception that onehas been insulted, it is just fantasy to suppose it comes from elsewhere.When one’s own ideas have done the harm, it is unreasonable to be

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