Is Suffering a Virtue?

We’ve been having an interesting conversation in the comments, and in other places, on my post the other day: Careless Conclusions About Genre Reading.

A number of people have mentioned that their culture’s “literary” fiction is depressing. And we’ve been tossing around the idea that literary fiction might be defined that way, as being about suffering. In some ways, this makes sense. The original essay’s author referred to it as “serious reading.” There’s a very strong idea that we gain virtue through suffering.

This concept is pervasive through many religions. In Catholicism, only the spirit matters, so the flesh should be mortified. Physical pleasure should be denied and pain sought out, to liberate the spirit from the flesh. Many oriental philosophies believe that only through pain and suffering do we grow. Pleasure puts us into a dreamy state while pain keeps us alert and aware. This kind of thinking is a part of many martial arts systems, as well. Islam is conducive to the creation of the suicide bomber because the body can be easily sacrificed for the delights of afterlife. Judaism has such a corner on suffering it’s become a stereotype.

Many religious rituals are based in creating pain – fasting, sacrifice, hours of prayer, even self-flagellation.

I think these sorts of ideas underlie the debates over “worthwhile” reading. Romance is all about love and finding happiness; therefore it’s not a weighty genre. Suffering and heartache are resolved with a happy ending, not the sacrifice of the physical self to gain enlightenment. In other kinds of genre literature, the character transformations are rarely about angst of the soul. (Although I think we could make good cases for this in many sci fi & fantasy books.)

I’ve bought into this from time to time in my life. Deliberately denied myself pleasurable things and caused myself various kinds of suffering and pain, to achieve various goals.

And you know what? I’m just not convinced.

I’m blessed with a pretty damn wonderful life. I live in a wealthy country, with access to state of the art health care, culture, food and freedom. I don’t have to worry about my village being raided by Mongols or the plagues warm weather will bring or whether the food supply will last through the winter. My concerns are minor and mostly things I choose to care about, as opposed to being life and death problems.

Which part of this am I not supposed to enjoy?

Sometimes I think just relishing all the wonderful things in life is enlightenment right there. Love, sex, music, food, the scent of flowers and the colors of the migrating birds, time spent talking to interesting people, practicing my art – all of it is so full, rich and rewarding.

It might not be a serious attitude, but then, I never claimed to be a saint.

Never really wanted to be one, in fact.

On that note, I hope you all have a fabulous and FUN weekend!