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The Light at the End of Suffering

Sunday 5 May 2013

By PEG O’CONNOR

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

How much more can I take?

This question has been at the root of the human experience for as long as we have been able to record it, if not longer. It was the lament of Job — or at least one of them — and is asked with no less frequency today, in response to circumstances ranging from devastating loss and grief to the typical hardships of a trying job or a long winter.

But where is that actual point at which a person “breaks” or comes to believe not only that her life is devoid of value or meaning, but that the world is, too? The truth is that most people really do not want to ascertain just how much more they can suffer. A vast majority of people would look askance at someone who really wanted to experiment with her limits for suffering. But what if we are to treat it as a genuine question? In some of my recent work in the area of addiction and philosophy, I’ve found that many active addicts of all sorts confront that limit every day, in ways that those fortunate enough to be free of addiction may never know. For some of them, the process of reaching that limit becomes an opportunity to effect radical transformation of their lives.

A broader understanding of this concept can be found in the work of William James, whose famous work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” provides significant insight about the limits of misery and its transformative potential. “Varieties” is product of lectures James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. His focus is the experiences of individuals “for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.” By “religion,” James does not mean religious institutions and their long entrenched theological debates, but rather something more akin to an individual spiritual state, which may or may not include belief in a god.

James was uniquely suited to deliver these lectures. He was a physician, philosopher and a psychologist before the field of psychology was part of academe, and someone with a deep, abiding interest in psychic events. He was, in all senses, a student of human nature. He explored this question of what we may call the “misery threshold” because he wanted to know if some people were more capable or more prone to experience “the acute fever” of religious belief. His answer: it is those who suffer most who are inclined to experience that fever. These are the people who fascinated him: those who toed right up to and sometimes over the line of despair and meaninglessness.

James claims in “Varieties” that there are two kinds of people, differentiated from where they live in relation to their misery threshold. Each person, he argued, has a threshold for emotional pain akin to a threshold for physical pain. While some people at the slightest physical pain tend to run to the ibuprofen or painkillers, others seem able to tolerate excruciating physical pain. The same holds for misery.

James calls those who live on the sunnier side of their misery threshold “healthy-minded.” Optimism fills their lives, though there are degrees of optimism. Some of the healthy-minded see the glass half full while others see it as half full with something really delicious. These are the sort of people who always look for the bright side and have a soul with “a sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with the flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions.” Though the sunny-side people can be miserable at times, they have a low tolerance for misery. It would take something catastrophic for them to stay on the dark side of their misery lines.

The sunny-siders are somewhat interesting to James, if only because they constitute a type that is almost completely foreign to him. James knew himself and many of his family members to belong to the second category — “sick souls” and “divided selves,” who live on the dark side of their misery threshold. Sick souls tend to say No to life, according to James, and are governed by fear. Sick souls tend to become anxious and melancholic, with apprehension that opportunistically spreads.

The person with a divided self suffers from what James calls “world sickness.” This sickness is progressive and James charts its development keenly and compassionately. Those with divided self experience a war within; their lives are “little more than a series of zig zags,” their “spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles” and “their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is an accurate description of addiction.

James knew a great deal about drunkenness or inebriety, to use the language of his time. For years, his brother Robertson (Bob) was in and out of asylums for the inebriate and spent his final years with James and his wife. This may explain why some of the most compelling first person accounts in James’s work of divided selves and sick souls who were later transformed come from people who were drunkards. (This may also explain why Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was so taken with William James. He was able to see himself in these stories and as a consequence, make sense of his own conversion experience when he sobered up for good in 1934.)

James’s description tracks our knowledge of addiction accordingly. The first stage of world sickness is what I would call “pleasure diminished.” What had previously brought joy or pleasure before now brings it less often and to lesser degrees. For an addict, the buzz just isn’t as much fun. It just isn’t the same yet she will continue to seek it.

“Pleasure destroyed” is the second stage. More and more things are seen as or end in disappointments; pessimism becomes the most frequent response. The pessimism grows though at this point it still attaches to particular situations in life rather than to the whole of life. An addict will take any disappointment as a reason to use. As more things become disappointing, the more a person will understand herself to have reasons to use.

The final stage in this world sickness is best described as “pathological melancholy.” The progression in this final stage is significant. First a person is no longer able to recognize joy and happiness. She experiences a melancholy and dreariness about life that makes her incapable of generating any joy for herself. The next phase is a melancholy in which a person generates an acute anguish about herself and the world. In this stage, a person feels self-loathing and acute anxiety. Her entire being, James would say, is choked with these feelings. Quite significantly, not only does the person see herself as having no meaning or significance, but nothing in the world has meaning. This melancholy leads to a kind of utter hopelessness about the particular conditions in which one lives and the meaning of life in general. With this hopelessness, the drama of repentance and effort to repair will end. It would take too much energy and it just isn’t worth it. Nothing is worth anything.

The person in the grips of the worst melancholy experiences a frightening anxiety about the universe and everything in it. At this point, panic and fright completely govern a person. James describes a man who admitted that a “horrible fear of my own existence,” came upon him one night. The man suddenly remembered an epileptic patient he had seen in an asylum who had greenish skin and sat “like some sort of Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely nonhuman. This image and my fear entered a combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt potentially … I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.” In a letter to a friend after the publication of “Varieties,” James admitted this was his very own experience as a young man. He himself had walked right up to the edge of a yawning abyss. James scholars debate the exact date of this crisis, but most locate it some time when James was in his late 20s.

Nietzsche recognized that “when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Kierkegaard realized that some people were more afraid of jumping into that abyss than falling. James understood this fear and saw the potential for transformation “through a passion of renunciation of the self and surrender to the higher power.” It is after this renunciation that one can experience “the acute fever” of a spiritual life.

The terms “surrender” and “higher power” and “powerlessness” are apt to leave some people uneasy (they are key phrases and concepts in 12-step programs everywhere). To surrender, in more Jamesian terms, is to make oneself open to new possibilities. To surrender is to stop clutching core beliefs or parts of one’s identity so tightly. When one loosens her grip, she makes it possible to hold something — perhaps very tentatively — in her hands. In the case of a person whose self worth or humanity has been decimated, it is a matter of being open to the possibility that just maybe she is worthy of a little dignity and respect. Surrendering can be simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

The when, where and how of surrender depends on a person’s misery threshold. Someone with a low threshold cannot suffer long and so is willing to make changes. Others will be able to suffer enormously and not surrender until there is nothing left to lose. Each person’s “rock bottom” is the point where misery can no longer be tolerated.

“Higher power” may leave even more people uneasy. James, however, uses the term in an elastic way. He does admit that “we Christians” call this higher power “God.” But to illustrate what he calls a “higher and friendly power,” James uses Henry David Thoreau’s description of walking in the gentle mist at Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote, “Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” Higher power can be nature, moral principles, patriotism, or a sense of fellowship or good will to others. For some, higher power is “enthusiasm for humanity.” Each of these, James might say, takes a person outside or beyond herself and connects her to others and thus can be a higher power.

It is easy to identify the ways that “the acute fever” burned in the Christian saints who engaged in all sorts of acts of self-mortification. But it is not easily spotted in someone who has surrendered to and embraced a higher power about their addictive behaviors; there is no equivalent of sack cloth.

There is, however, a unification of a previously divided self. People who know addicts in recovery often see this before the addict herself. A person with the acute fever of sobriety or recovery comes to have a firmness of mind and character. She has clear beliefs and principles and acts from them. She also has stability that is achieved and maintained by keeping various relationships with relatives, friends congruent with personal history, commitments, goals and beliefs. Each of these helps to hold the others steady. Finally, a person who burns with the acute fever of sobriety has equilibrium. She is able to strike the balance between opposing forces, some of which are in her control and others not.

No one person will be immune from all suffering. However, the acute fever transforms a person’s life so that the drama, chaos and despair are, as James says, “severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles.” And this, James would proclaim, shows that hope and redemption are just as much part of the human condition.


Peg O’Connor teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. She recently gave a series of talks on philosophy and addiction at Vila Serena in Salvador, Brazil, and Jaywalker Lodge in Carbondale, Colo.

See online: The Light at the End of Suffering