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Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering
c. 2008, Judith Acosta
“The coin of health has illness on the other side. The currency of joy has sorrow on the reverse.
Turn the coin of serenity and there is the stamp of worry. You always have to take what is underneath
and reckon with that too. Happiness rests on sorrow, life upon death, calm upon turmoil.
Each day has its night.”
The Philosophical Setting
God bless America. I mean that with all sincerity. We are a nation of
hopefuls and always have been.
We march on Washington. We cure diseases that have wracked
humanity for eons. We break records and run faster-than-four-minute miles.
We split atoms and conquer space. We manifest our destinies and defy the
presence of gorges, rivers, and mountains that threaten to block our
In our relatively short time on earth, this nation has spawned more
utopian societies and splinter religions promising immediate deliverance
than any other culture in history.
We not only hope. We demand. And we do not take “no” for an
answer. If we have to move mountains, we move them even if we have to do
it one truck load at a time. If we have to wipe out polio, we develop a
vaccine. If we have to get across enemy lines, we build stealth aircraft. We
believe that nothing can stop us but ourselves.
This, in and of itself, is not a consciousness unique to our time. There
have been other warrior nations and empires that have been as bold and
clever as we have. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Romans have all forged
paths through impossibly dense forests and forbidding deserts both
concretely and metaphorically.
What IS unique to modern America is that our hopefulness comes
with a price tag that no other culture has ever been willing to pay. It comes
at the expense of reality and the medium of exchange is our spirit.
We want to be happy. We want to be healthy. We want to be wealthy.
And, I believe, this “wanting” is only natural. What is not is that we want to
be wealthy without having to work all that hard or study all that much. We
want to be healthy without having to eat well, sleep through the night or
exercise regularly. We want happiness and love and contentment without
ever having to suffer or sacrifice. And we want it now.
Of the three “wants”, the third is the most troubling and potentially
poses the most subtle danger of our time. The first two (health and wealth)
are primarily issues of entitlement which we may address at some other
point. The third want—to be happy—is really a deeply ingrained though
fairly modern psychic need. We need to be happy at the expense of what we
know to be true. We need it so badly that we are forced to deny the obvious
inevitability of suffering, rendering it not only meaningless but the mark of a
A friend of mine had a conversation with a young man that made this
version of “happiness” starkly clear. After the young man praised a mutual
acquaintance for buying a high-end television he could barely afford, my
friend said to him, “I’d rather have nothing and be loved.”
To which the young man responded, “That’s just loser talk.”
You can see this in New Age theology a great deal, where even
sickness, injury, and tragedies are by definition self-inflicted and reveal an
error in our core programming. In that philosophy, which has permeated the
media and popular thinking, the mystery of the universe is easily
explainable: We are responsible for everything that happens to us and around
us. Happiness, abundance, good health—all these things are seen as our
birthrights. So, if we are suffering, if our loved ones are suffering, well, that
just means we’re writing bad scripts for our lives.
In some ways it is a uniquely American way of nipping God in His
Achilles’ heel. It says that if there is a God, then it all has to be good, all the
time. Evil cannot exist. Because Americans are basically a religious people,
for us not to disavow God, we must disavow evil, and by extension, disavow
suffering. This is dangerous because in order to do this, in order to deny the
value and meaning of suffering, in order to be able to say to someone “If
you’re not happy or successful something is wrong with you,” we have to
deny the only real hope we ever had: our souls.
The Soul as Step-Child
Now, this, this societal disavowal of eternity is a new development. At
no other time in recorded history has an entire culture determined that life
was spiritless, that animal and plant life, no less human life, was a random
amalgam of rotating particles, a genetic ratatouille, nothing more, nothing
less. It is true, as Benjamin Wiker pointed out in his book Moral Darwinism,
that materialism can be traced back to Epicurus. And it is also true that
Lucretius, one of his followers, actually spoke of the world being spiritless,
meaningless particulate. But that was not a widespread, embedded cultural
gestalt. In the modern West our thoughts are seen as merely the empirical
product of impersonal neuronal exchanges, our most intimate loves a
function of anonymous hormonal cascades, our pains and our longings a
problem of poor programming. And this viewpoint pervades society from
the top of the ivory tower to the bottom.
In this modern, medical view of ourselves and the world in which we
live, we are our bodies. We are material. As such our only legitimate
concerns are the prolongation of bodily life and the feeding of bodily desire.
There is no great glory in honor, no lofty sentiment or everlasting virtue in
friendship, no reason to sacrifice life or limb for another, no eternity and no
personal meaning in existence. There is only the gaping maw of ambition,
aggression and hunger. What else is there? What else matters in a material
world BUT matter?
Logically, not much.
It is no wonder that we are so busy with face lifts, implants, and
Viagra™. It is no wonder we worry more about the accumulation of goods
than we do about relationships. It is no wonder we fret more about getting
our fifteen minutes of fame than about giving love. Given our materialism,
the fear, the terror, really, of standing face to face with evil, of even being in
the same room as suffering makes a great deal of sense. If we are, in fact,
our bodies and nothing but our bodies we must not only deny suffering, we
must deny death itself because there is nothing for us beyond that. And if we
deny death, we must deny life. It is a vicious cycle, an Ouroboros committed
only to its own continuity.
A friend of mine is a teacher of theology and, in my mind, a true
scholar. When I told her I was writing about suffering, she had this
What I find most interesting when it comes to suffering and
modern life is that suffering is the worst thing in the world now for
post-Christian man, whereas for Judeo-Christian man the worst thing is
sin. Many of our modern evils, like abortion, euthanasia, embryo
destruction, and cloning come out of the desire to avoid suffering.
Even those arenas in which one would expect to find the greatest
sense of spirituality and the deepest understanding of suffering it has been
modernized and distorted. Of all the scriptures in the Bible, it seems that no
matter what channel you turn to the message of the modern Evangelical
movement is the same as corporate America: Ask and ye shall receive. It is
the modern, media spin on the Doctrine of the Elect and Predestination: How
do we know you have found God’s favor? Because you’re successful. How
do you get to be successful? By God’s favor. So, the goal is to be successful,
to acquire wealth, prestige, and power. Somewhere along the line even the
ministers have forgotten, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for
righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you
when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you
falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your
reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Where did we ever get the idea that we could petition God for
happiness as if we were putting quarters into a candy-dispenser, that if you
pray “just so” or tithe “just so” that God will reward you with a new job and
a corner office? To my ears this sounds like a Christianity that has been co-
opted by corporate interests or, worse, by Hollywood.
If it were true, if I saw even the slightest evidence that somehow
suffering were avoidable, I would be the first to march behind the banner of
utopia and temporal happiness. I am no great fan of suffering and I do not
wear sack cloths or wipe ash on my face when I fast. I do not seek it out or
take any perverse pride in experiencing more or less of it than anyone else.
As far as I can see, though, the Buddha was right. Life is suffering and
everyone, but everyone, gets a bowl and his/her proper portion.
The Personal Setting.
In writing this article, I had to ask myself: Why shouldn’t I avoid
suffering? What’s in it for me, for anyone? It’s a fair question. And the
answer I came up with was this: By being present for suffering, we become
present for the whole of life, not just the niceties. And the reward is nothing
less than the ability to love fully. This is not a philosophical point. It is a
most pragmatic, palpable benefit and the only one that really means anything
after all. When I think of all the things I did as a young adult to make myself
“happy,” all the risks I took, all the hurt I created in myself and others—all
in the name of happiness, I literally shudder. I rarely actually felt happy and
almost never felt deep love. The mantra “whatever makes you happy” ran
my life but gave me nothing but heartache.
I am reminded of a book C.S. Lewis wrote (The Four Loves) in which
he said (and I paraphrase): If you would love you would suffer. We cannot
even love a dog without at one point or another feeling the pain of loss,
assuming we outlive the dog. The greatest of all things—love—is itself most
intimately bound with suffering. It is a poignant irony, I think. In our attempt
to avoid suffering, we cut ourselves off from the one thing that can mitigate
it: each other.
One of my dogs, Ty, died about 9 months ago. Of our four dogs, Ty
was the one most closely bonded to me. I found him when I volunteered at a
shelter, a simple act of kindness he apparently never forgot. He followed me
around from room to room, happy to be anywhere in my vicinity, overjoyed
at my return even from the bathroom. When he got sick, I took care of him. I
knew what was coming. I knew that inevitably I would feel the pain of his
loss. Would I, should I have not loved him? Should I have stopped caring for
This is what Pope Benedict had to say when asked a similar question:
Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get
rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without
suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because,
given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always
bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love–this
exodus, this going out of oneself–is the true way by which man becomes
human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which
we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more
mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone
who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he
becomes hard and selfish.
This does not mean we should seek out suffering or, worse yet,
ignore it in others. Precisely the opposite. It is only the person who rejects
suffering who can walk past the man who is lying on the street in pain. It is
only the tyrant who denies his own humanity, his own pain, and his own
soul who can deny it in others. It is only the fearful, the misguided, and the
selfish who choose their own comfort at the expense of everything else that
This avoidance of suffering has a multitude of personal
consequences, predictably and most noticeably the avoidance of intimacy.
There is one man I know who has cut himself off from emotional
entanglements altogether in an attempt to ward off the pain of loss. I don’t
pretend to assume his reasons; they may be many. I know he has
experienced the pain of abandonment and witnessed painful deaths. What I
can see are the blatant effects of his decision on his life: heavy drinking,
isolation, neglect. Even when he is surrounded by those who would love
him, he is utterly alone.
The other consequence I have noticed is a tendency to project the
suffering outward. People are drawn to reality shows, horror films, and
grotesque mutilations on that new genre of TV drama—forensics. I do not
fully understand the intrapsychic mechanics of this yet, but it seems to me
that we can only deny reality up to a point without either projecting it
outward or breaking down. We know that suffering is real. We know that the
world is filled with it. But we don’t want to deal with it. So we turn it into
melodrama and fantasy. We objectify it, minimize it, and depersonalize it. I
have seen the same person watch horror show after horror show, play violent
video games, but refuse to help care for an elderly relative with incontinence
because it was “gross.”
Unfortunately, in this world what binds us together and what gives
us meaning is a complex amalgam of emotions and experiences. It’s not all
skipping through the park. People get sick. We get hurt. We make mistakes.
We are fallen. And we cannot save ourselves. I am convinced of that. It is
always someone else’ hand—God’s, a spiritual adviser’s, a friend’s, a
spouse’s, a parent’s—that reaches in to pull us out. This is life.
The other day I had what my husband calls a “wave” of grief. I was
looking out the window and my eyes landed on the grassy area where Ty
finally took his last breath. My husband followed my gaze and knew what I
was feeling. He put his arms around me and said, “It’ll pass.”
I looked into myself, then up at him, “I’m not sure I ever want it to
It surprised me and scared him a little until I explained: To me, joy
and happiness are not the same things. Happiness is ephemeral and depends
largely on the vagaries of circumstance. It is a transient emotional state that
is context-specific and is quickly antidoted by pain or sorrow. Joy is a
spiritual state and is therefore, like love, bigger than suffering, than sadness,
than pain. Its source is not earth-bound and as such it is independent of the
situation in which I may find myself. Joy gives to life. Happiness receives
from it. So, I told him and sighed, I can be joyful and still be terribly,
awfully sad. I can have hope and simultaneously lament the state of the
world. I may suffer. But I love. Deeply. With my eyes and arms and heart
wide open. And that kind of love bears me up.