Such a lot of Pain on the Earth

I have the Rush CD Snakes and Arrows on my car’s CD player, and Ryan (5) has decided he wants to hear the same song over and over — “The Larger Bowl” by Rush.  Here are some of the lyrics:

The Larger Bowl (Rush – lyrics by Neil Peart)

If we’re so much the same like I always hear
Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some of us live in a cloud of fear
Some live behind iron gates

Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some are blessed and some are cursed
Some live behind iron gates
While others only see the worst

Some are blessed and some are cursed
The golden one or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth

Somethings can never be changed
Some reasons will never come clear
It’s somehow so badly arranged
If we’re so much the same like I always hear

(End of lyrics)

It’s a catchy tune, so I’m not surprised Ryan liked it, but he’s old enough now to understand the lyrics, and he asked me “why are they saying there is so much pain on the planet Earth?”   I had to think a second.  I teach courses on war, including one on children and war, about third world poverty, and often with an intense look at novels and individual cases.  My goal is to connect students with the human side of world politics — and to recognize just how much pain is on this planet, and how little we do to mitigate that.

Add to that the reality of the massive job cuts taking place now in the US.  As head of the local faculty union I’ve had to deal with a tiny number of people whose lives are impacted; I can imagine this being increased by tens of thousands, with conditions far more dire than I’ve encountered.   We read daily about the real impact of this economic crisis; it isn’t abstract, it’s real pain.  I read blogs about people in personal pain over other things in their lives, and I notice all around a lot of uncertainty, anger, and fear.

Yet as real as that is, what do you say to a five year old?  “Yes, there is a lot of pain on the earth — wars, people fighting, people without enough to eat, people without jobs.  We’re lucky we have what we have and to be so happy.”  He was silent.  “I don’t want people to have pain, they should all be happy, stop fighting and someone should buy them enough to eat.”   Ah yes, if only it were that easy.  “Yeah,” I replied, “that’s what people are trying to do, that’s what Barack Obama wants.”   The conversation then moved on to skiing.

Later I kicked myself for how I answered that.  Was I just installing the dangerous myth that government would solve all our problems?  Was this a secular equivalent to a religious person’s “God will take care of it” response to such a question?  Shouldn’t I have said that in our lives we do little bits of good and help others that will over time improve the world — that we can’t solve all the problems, but we can help each other?  But then, Ryan is only five, maybe all he needed was some reassurance.  I still recall how after he saw the end of the film Titantic he went to bed crying, thinking of all the frozen people.   He was inconsolable after seeing the an old Lassie, as the dog suffered greatly to make it home.  Despite the happy ending, Ryan cried himself to sleep.   He may be five, but he’s sensitive to the suffering of others.

But the question is real — how can one live happily and positively knowing there is so much pain?   As readers of this blog have probably figured out, I’m a true believer in a positive outlook.   When I described my view of life to a colleague he told me that in psychology there is an entire field based on this perspective called “positive psychology.”  I looked it up, and found that it really does correspond to how I see things.  Yet if one is to choose to be positive and optimistic in going through life, what about the real pain out there?   It’s easy to be positive if you have a job and live in the industrialized West, after all.

Then again…people cope with different kinds of pain all the time.  It’s a fallacy of our culture that prosperity and security mean happiness.   The pain to a wealthy suburban housewife suffering depression while her husband globetrots may seem a luxurious form of pain compared to someone starving or dying of cholera in Zimbabwe, but the emotions are as real, and it’s that emotional truth rather than the material circumstance that counts.    Even children who become soldiers and are trained to commit atrocities while hyped up on cocaine and other drugs can recover.  It’s said children are resilient; I think people can be resilient.

To take a positive approach to life cannot be to deny either the reality of people’s pain or the legitimacy of their emotions, whether caused by the third world AIDS epidemic, abuse at home, or fears of what the economy means for ones’ ability to feed a family.   There is a lot of pain on the earth.   But the worst pain is that caused by a sensed lack of meaning or purpose.  What’s the point, if this is all there is?  Why bother?   Especially if the situation is not something one can control, the human response is to feel overwhelmed, fighting against the tide, angry at the people or circumstances that created whatever situation a person is dealing with.   To say “be positive and all will be better” would be to stick a knife into that person’s emotional essence — it denies the legitimacy of real emotions and belittles their circumstance.  I have to bite my tongue sometimes if I see someone distraught by something that seems to me to be a misplaced reaction to particular circumstances — you can’t tell someone what to feel.

And to look at wars, third world suffering, and all that and say “keep a positive attitude” seems cruel in the face of such massive injustice and pain.  One reason I teach about Rwanda, Cambodia, Stalin’s death camps, and third world suffering is to humanize the reality of world politics.  We study Romeo Dallaire’s experience in and after Rwanda to bring home the fact this pain is real and human.  I force my students to watch gruesome video and here vivid accounts of the worst of humanity, and then react to them.  If I’m such a positive thinker, what’s the point in doing that?

It hits me: one can only take a positive attitude towards life if one confronts the reality of the pain, and tries to empathize as much as possible.  When I have tears running down my face because I am connecting with someones’ experience on a film (and I cry easily at movies or even news clips, both when very good or very bad things happen), I’m connecting at a very surface level with another’s experience of pain.  They experience it truly; I can only imagine…and if I want, I can put up barriers to limit that imagination.  But I try to empathize as much as possible.

Then the answer becomes obvious: Love.   It sounds trite, but love is the path to remaining positive despite the pain all around.  Love for oneself to keep going and not give into pain.  Love for others to think it worth it to try to fight for a better world and act in the world to make at least a small difference.  Love for humanity to trust that others are doing the same thing and that if we keep trying, recognize as valid the pain, try not to ignore it, and try to do something, then over time, things can change.   Because just as surely as there is pain, there is beauty.  People helping others, caring for abandoned children, helping child soldiers recover, feeding the poor, helping a friend distraught over something in her or his life.  And that beauty ultimately can overcome the pain and support a positive approach to life.

  1. #1 by Lee on February 9, 2009 - 02:01

    I think what you said to your son was right on target. I doubt he’ll decide the govt has the power or ability to solve all our ills. But if he is able to hope that our govt has the desire to help and the willingness to try, that isn’t a bad thing IMHO. After all, as a parent, I want my children to feel that the govt we participate in has value and meaning.

    I agree too, that love is the ultimate reason to maintain a positive attitude. I know someone who would have every reason *not* to be positive. A failed marriage and subsequently greatly reduced financial sitution, very serious (life threatening) illnesses to deal with and more. Yet every time i see this person, she has a smile on her face and something good to share. I know that her children and grandchildren are very loving and present in her life and I credit her outlook in large part to that.

    As an aside, I am always glad to hear of others who try to look at things positively. I have been blessed in my life but have also had my share of tough times. Yet I have always believed that looking for the positive and trying to be a positive force in the world I live in are the way to go.

  2. #2 by helenl on February 9, 2009 - 17:45

    I think the positive outlook is related to hope. If we cannot envision a better world (if we think things are the way they are because they must be), how can we help make things more nearly the way they should be? I, too, see things in a positive light. And I presume things should be better; that wars should cease and that people should have their basic needs met. I am happy by choice. It’s not that I don’t see the pain, it’s that I don’t see how a permanent focus on it can remove it. I think we must deal with our own pain as a part of removing the pain from the world. And yes, I am one of the lucky ones who has her basis needs and many wants met.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on February 10, 2009 - 04:58

    I also think your answer to your son’s question was appropriate — he wanted reassurance. I don’t think it sounded like you were saying the government will fix things for us, even though you mentioned the president. You simply affirmed for him that other people in the world care for others as he does — that the world is in essence a good, caring place. I think that’s what a five-year-old needs to hear in order to feel secure!

    Now, the trick for me is to walk the road of compassion, so that the love you mentioned in also extended to those perpetrating the pain in the world.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on February 10, 2009 - 21:41

    Lee, your friend reminds me of a woman I know who survived the Cambodian genocide. As a child she saw so much horror, yet she remains one of the most positive people I know.

    Helen, I think you’re on to something — we’re in a world full of beauty, and if we ignore it and focus on the pain, then we’re choosing to see only part of the picture. I wrote a blog entry along those lines, inspired by a poem by Robinson Jeffers:

    Henitsirk, your last line really has me thinking, but I probably need to write a blog post about it rather than trying to respond here!

  5. #5 by Missy on February 22, 2013 - 13:41

    As a Rush fan, and a soul that views the world as you, and shares the same positive thinking, i just wanted to tell you – thank you for this post. it touched me deeply and i just wanted to reach out and let you know how beautiful i thought it was and what a wonderful dad, your Ryan has! You have a new follower in me! Thanks Scott 🙂 RushON!

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