Friday, July 31, 2020

Our Damaging Narratives of Suffering and Purpose

Life comes with many struggles. One of the most powerful methods of coping with struggles we can do nothing about is to tell ourselves a narrative: that this struggle, and the suffering it causes, gives our lives meaning in a way that we may not understand, but is precious and we would not want to live without. This narrative can be powerful enough to keep us hopeful and grateful, even in circumstances which by all logic should drive us to despair.

But there is a danger to it; when a narrative gives us purpose, we tend to cling to it, even when the circumstances that give birth to it no longer apply. When we lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, everyone had to contribute to the survival of the tribe. This was a struggle against nature, an unchangeable fact of the human condition. By working together as a community, we survived, and that gave us purpose. And so the narrative that the struggle to survive is what gives us purpose was born.

However, over the course of history, things have changed. Industry has made food, comforts, and luxuries abundant. Many people struggle much less than ever before. We are coming closer to—and some would argue we have already arrived at—a place where it would be possible to construct an economy so that people do not need to struggle for survival.

Yet many of us still cling to the narrative that without a struggle for survival, there can be no purpose in life. This is, of course, false. When we are not struggling for survival there are plenty of things we can do that give us purpose, like training ourselves in athletic activities, pursuing scientific research, contemplating philosophy, traveling the world, creating art, competing in games, and striving to further improve the world. Being free from the struggle for survival gives us new opportunities for fulfillment and purpose, albeit of a different flavor from the struggle, but without the downsides of the suffering the struggle imposes upon us.

And that is where the problem lies. We could be so much, and have such fulfilling lives by eliminating the struggle for survival. But the narrative that there would be no purpose to life if the struggle did not exist holds us back. People who cling to this narrative not only don’t help, but sometimes they actively sabotage those who work to mitigate the struggle, by spreading the narrative with their voices, or by voting for those who would impose the struggle upon us.

It is one thing when life is hard because there is no other choice. But if we feel that the struggle is unnecessary and is being imposed upon us by others, all purpose that would have been found in it vanishes.

Another narrative we tell ourselves of the meaning in suffering regards the inevitability of death. For our entire history, death by old age has been one of the most significant limitations of the human condition. We have many myths of the fruitlessness of chasing immortality, and have come to terms with it by telling ourselves that without the ticking clock in our lives, we would not be able to enjoy the time we have, because we would never be motivated to do anything.

However, with modern science, we may soon have the ability to reverse aging . . . if the right research gets funded. And something which has always been with us, the briefness of life, may no longer be an unchangeable fact of existence. And thus, the narrative that death gives life meaning, which once gave us solace and helped us accept the inevitable, turns on us and holds us back from reaching for a greater existence.

There are legitimate concerns regarding anti-aging research, such as how would we feed everyone, and worries about exacerbating inequality by creating a new class of rich immortals while everyone else is stuck working for subsistence. But the narrative that the briefness of life is an essential ingredient for meaning in life is not one of them.

In this era of increasing technology and understanding, we must not cling to narratives of purpose in suffering. When there is nothing we can do about it, these narratives can help us cope and find meaning in life. However, we must set aside a corner of our minds for the knowledge that we are empowered to find meaning despite our suffering, not because of it. Then, if it becomes possible to eliminate that suffering, through technology or the economy, we will not be held back from working toward it by narratives of acceptance that we no longer need.

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