Romanticizing Suffering

Apr 6, 2012 | Christianity, Disability, Mental Illness

It always ground my gears hearing chapel speakers wax romantically about suffering while I was in eye pain and serious depression.  I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I don’t have the historical knowledge to grasp but here is my speculation:

Those who have come through suffering with their articulation intact represent a biased sample.  People who haven’t weathered suffering so well generally aren’t readily able to put it into words.   And when they do it often comes out incoherent.

Suffering weakens people to the point where the most adaptive thing for them to be is virtuous.  Christianity lifts up virtue so when it sees people who suffer exhibiting more of it it jumps to the conclusion that the suffering was what made them better.

Suffering makes some people more reflective.  This can cause them to produce better art/writing and we value good work so we say the suffering that led to it must be a good thing.

Suffering makes some people more empathetic.  The fact that someone’s suffering makes your life better doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

Romanticizing suffering comes from a premodern view of the mind.  There is this dualistic notion that there are limits on what the corporal self can do to the inmost being.  This is shown to be false by modern psychology.  Once you have suffered past a certain threshold your mental health starts to degrade.  And in the realm of mental illness there is actually something called a negative symptom—parts of you the mental illness takes away.

Painting suffering in a positive light assumes the ideal that those around you will support you instead of pull back or drop out of your life entirely.  More often than not people drop out of the lives of those who experience serious suffering (which compounds the suffering).  Those doing the romanticizing are unwilling to take the step of romanticizing the desertion.

Ultimately romanticizing suffering is a way for those who suffer more to make those who suffer less (who generally have more power) comfortable, insulating them from the senseless evil and chaos the world offers those without power in good measure.

See Part 2

1 Comment

  1. Kaiser

    Good insights. As a longtime sufferer of OCD, whenever I get optimistic about the future of mental health, inevitably someone starts to feel uneasy because, to paraphrase, “If we cure all diseases, what will life mean?” And yet, no one is volunteering to get tuberculosis, a disease we’ve effectively cured through antibiotics, in order to have more meaning. I’ve noticed it’s always the people who aren’t suffering horribly who say those things. People who are truly suffering just want the pain to end.


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