Suffering, Self-Care and Superheroes
In 399 BC, a prominent Greek philosopher named Socrates was being trialed for corrupting the minds of citizens with his ideas. Socrates did not believe that he committed a crime and he defended himself in court with reason and logic. The jury of the court which consisted of hundreds of male citizens, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
The night before his execution, Socrates was visited by his friends in the prison who wanted to help him escape. He declined their offer and as per law, drank poison in the court the next day.
I have purposefully kept away information about his views and the political climate of Athens to emphasize one simple question,
Socrates agreed to be executed for a crime that he genuinely believed he did not commit, was he stupid?
In this article, I discuss various aspects of life that affect our well-being. Read it with an open mind, entertain the ideas I present and take away what you think will help you live a better life.
Suffering is physical/mental discomfort or pain. It can be as simple as a headache or what you feel when the product you have been saving money for goes out of stock. We suffer when things aren’t the way we want them to be.
What if we could avoid the suffering altogether? Consider the following:
In a video game, two teams of people shoot with guns at each other to eliminate them (like in paintball). Let’s say you play such a game on your computer for 1 hour every day for fun. The makers of the video game notice that a lot of times, when players are about to win but they lose for whatever reason - they feel bad. Some people feel bad because they lose more times than they win because of a lack of skill or constant “bad luck”. The developers want players to have fun, not suffer. They decide to modify the game such that your opponents are always robots who play terribly on purpose. Even high-tension situations such as you being the last member of the team who must take down all opponents, always result in a win. As a player who wants to have a good time, would you play this version of the game or the original one?
You see, there is value in winning because it is possible to lose. You could have lost, but you didn’t - there’s relief. You contributed to your team’s success - there’s a sense of achievement. The pleasure of winning does not come from reading “you won” on your screen, it comes from overcoming adversity and not losing.
The world is full of painful experiences that will not help you in any way and may even give you mental illnesses such as PTSD. The analogy was not an attempt to make suffering look acceptable but to show that negative states of happiness can have value in certain contexts.
Another thing about suffering is that it is inevitable, it is only a matter of when and how much. Painful experiences are not accidents, they are not unexpected, and they are bound to happen. Suffering is so universal and true that you may even call it a property of existence.
I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent - no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” ― Seneca
Finally, we do not want to be in pain or discomfort or pain so we attempt to take action to get out of it. This urge to reduce discomfort is what has led to so many creations in the fields of science, engineering, arts etc. It is not the sole reason for the growth of a person or a species as a whole but it certainly promotes change.
- Suffering is inevitable, it is expected.
- Suffering is bad but without it, pleasure would not have the same effect.
- Suffering calls for action.
In this documentary about the trend of height-enhancing surgery in India, a 155cm (5 feet) tall man shares his experience. He talks about how his peers would make fun of his height when he was in school. He was a bright student and thought that he if studies hard and does well in life - maybe it will overshadow his short height. He went on to become an engineer, learn 9 languages and acquire 5 academic degrees including a master’s in arts and business. The comments and ridicule on his height however, did not stop. Thus, he decided to go through a dangerous surgery and 6 months of painful recovery to alter his body in his 40s.
While the sentiment behind ✨all bodies are beautiful✨ message is kind, that statement itself is not true. It has been concluded through countless studies that certain physical traits are conventionally more attractive than others. Believing otherwise would be delusional and for this man, the illusion of all bodies being beautiful would break as soon as he stepped outside.
A stoic might tell this man that “It is true that you are shorter than average and that being short is a conventionally unattractive trait. Your height is not something you can control so why worry about it? Worrying will change nothing but make you suffer.” This statement is rational and grounded in reality but is there a switch this man can turn off to stop thinking about it? Such an attempt at avoiding emotions instead of dealing with them is called intellectualization. It is not good for your mental health.
So what should the man have done? What should we tell people who feel bad about their bodies? How to deal with misery?
It’s rough, I know. Our monkey brains can not think completely rationally and life being “unreasonably” cruel only makes things worse. Our pets shouldn’t die but they do. Blanche Monnier didn’t deserve to be locked in a tiny dark room for 25 years for loving a man her mother didn’t approve of, but it happened1. The physical appearance of the short man shouldn’t have made him miserable but it did.
Acknowledging that no matter what happens, what people or material possessions you lose, your self will stay with you until you die - is the beginning of self-care. Acknowledging that a good life, however you may define it, starts with you and then acting upon this acknowledgment is self-care.
To minimize the effect of suffering on our well-being that life constantly throws at us, we should:
- Make good friends to have a support system during adversity. Being a lone wolf isn’t good for you, science says so.2 3
- Take regular breaks from stressful tasks, take care of our nutrition and practice mindfulness.
- Consult a psychotherapist to get a better understanding of ourselves and fix harmful thinking patterns.
- Understand that our brain is plagued with biases and we should not be too harsh on ourselves for making mistakes. I suggest you read my article about this, here.
- Introspect, discuss and read regularly
We suffer in our imagination more often than in reality.
I can not prevent unwanted outcomes but I can choose how I will respond when they come. When I’m reminded of my partner’s mortality, instead of getting sad, I will kiss and hug her tightly to celebrate her existence. When she dies, I will cry, a lot. My friends will hold me and say nothing. That’s how I choose to respond to the thought and fact of her dying.
- Self-care is taking care of yourself so neither your brain nor your body are weighing you down on the quest to live a good life.
- Delusional coping mechanisms aren’t good. Intellectualization isn’t good either.
- We do not have much control over what happens but we can choose our response to them.
- We should be kind to ourselves when our fundamentally flawed brain can’t respond rationally to a situation.
The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils.”
Said Diogenes, “Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king.”
When we have a desire, depending on how strong it is, it causes discomfort whenever we are reminded of its unfulfillment. It lurks in our mind until it is fulfilled or we give up on it. Giving up on a desire makes us uncomfortable too depending on the nature of the desire as well as one’s mental state.
This is why many philosophers especially Buddha considered desires to be a major cause of suffering. The less desires one has, the closer they will be to contentment.
So, I have a considerable amount of followers on the internet. Every once in a while, I get offers from companies to promote their product to my followers in exchange for money or some other reward. These products are not scams/bad but they are not good enough to be genuinely recommended either so I decline. What do I gain from protecting my followers in silence? Nothing. If I accept the offer, however, I gain money that I can later spend on whatever for pleasure.
This has nothing to do with ethics or morals, it is about doing what I want to do. I desire to act with integrity and that may make me miss out on immediate pleasure but doing so gives me satisfaction. Moreover, it saves me from the guilt (and other painful emotions) I would receive if I betrayed myself and took the money.
I have observed that not doing what you think you should be doing is what causes the most amount of dissatisfaction.
- Desires give pleasure and satisfaction when fulfilled.
- Unfulfilled desires are taxing on our brains. More desires, more possibility of suffering.
- Being able to do/say what we want to do/say is a strong desire.
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
It is a common trope in superhero fiction that a superhero willingly decides to fight a threat even if the possibility of the threat being defeated is negligible. Their friends rightfully tell the hero that the hero will die but the hero doesn’t back down. Are the writers trying to make these superheroes look stupid?
In 1959, a woman got seriously injured by falling from a mountain. She could not receive treatment because the nearest hospital was on the other side of the mountain and the only way to it was going around the mountain. Due to a lack of medical attention in time, she passed away. Her husband, Dashrath Manjhi4 was so affected by her death that he decided to carve a path through the mountain. He had nothing but a hammer and chisel and it took him 22 years to do so. The path he carved reduced the distance between Atri and Wazirganj blocks from 55 km to 15 km. Was he a moron for purposefully spending 22 years in misery instead of doing a fresh start in life or something?
I wonder why millions of Indians sacrificed themselves to protest against the atrocities the British were committing against them. Why would they willingly go to a protest knowing the British may tie them to a cannon and blast them off, were they stupid?5
I have a friend who is a transgender woman. She must have had all reasonable thoughts before she came out. “What if my parents abandoned me? How will my friends, classmates and neighbors take it? What if I get killed as a hate crime?6 What about the harassment I will face in everyday life and on the internet? What about the bias in dating?…” Despite all this, she declared that she is a woman, is she stupid?
If the famous “genius” scientist were so smart, why did almost all of them work obsessively? Do they not know it’s bad for their health? Are they idiots?
Enough examples. Let’s talk about Socrates, was he stupid?
For an in-depth analysis of Socrates and his motivations behind accepting the death sentence, you can read this excellent essay.
In the context of this discussion, we can say that he realized that a life in hiding forever after betraying what he has been fighting for all this time was not worth living.
Whether you call all these people superheroes or stupid, one thought that ties them together is:
When your life starts to deviate from what you want it to be, there comes a point where it’s not worth living.
In pop culture, a man who stays in his room all day playing video games, eating junk food and watching pornography - is called a “loser”. If life is about having fun, how is he a loser?
If I have failed to convince you that running behind pleasure and avoiding discomfort is not what life is about, I have good news for you. Virtual reality and brain interface tech is rapidly growing and in the next decade, we might reach levels of simulation where we can live in a virtual world where everything happens the way we want it to. Looking forward.