August 12, 2017

Source: Bigstock

I knew which tablets to buy and duly bought them. They produced immediate if temporary relief, without (in my case) any adverse side effects. It was pleasant to reflect upon the good fortune of our age: For hundreds of years there would have been no such relief available. This, of course, is unfair: unfair to all the people for whom the relief was not available. I had done nothing by contrast with them to deserve the availability of the relief. Those who rail against the unfairness of the world, and who think that the world may be made fair, might reflect on this. Why should those who come after us enjoy benefits that we cannot enjoy, simply by virtue of having been born after us? It’s not fair.

The pain disappeared, as it is apt to do in this disease (though it might come back, of course). When it did, I was glad to have had it: Never had I appreciated the joy of a painless big toe before, whose existence I had always taken for granted. Now painlessness in my big toe seemed like a great luxury, an enormous privilege. I was grateful for it.

I know that the gratitude will not last, because gratitude can never be a chronic emotion. I will forget the pain within the week and take my painless toe for granted again. But still the episode illustrates the point that suffering is necessary for the full appreciation of life. Without some experience of it, we could hardly be aware that we were enjoying anything; and it is why it is so difficult to imagine heaven, where suffering does not and could not exist. We can all imagine, vividly, a thousand hells, but a single heaven is quite beyond our imagination to conceive. That is why the iconography of hell is varied and fascinating, that of heaven dull and boring.

Not only the capacity for but also some experience of suffering is necessary, then, for the enjoyment of life: suffering in general, but not any particular instance of it, which should always be relieved if possible. This is nearly, but not quite, a paradox, which in general we misunderstand, to our own detriment.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!