Tuesday, 6 July 2010
AT THE GATES OF ETERNITY - SOME THOUGHTS ON SUFFERING
"And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground." - Gospel of Luke
"Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy." - Psalm 130
The picture above is by Vincent Van Gogh. Its name is At The Gates Of Eternity. He painted it in the last few weeks of his life, not long before he shot himself, dying two days later. As an image of human suffering and despair, it probably cannot be beaten, except, perhaps, by Edvard Munch's The Scream, which is now iconic. Who has not known the state of mind, the pain which the man seems to embody in this picture?
And that is kind of my point. Who has NOT known it? Who has never been in that black place which Van Gogh so powerfully evokes here, where everything seems terrifyingly empty, mental anguish is intense and one longs for some kind of comfort or release, even, dare I say it, an end? The thing that makes the painting so powerful is not that it is unusual, but that it evokes something everyone at some point in their life experiences. And yet how little - how LITTLE - do any of us own up to it? Instead we pretend, individually and as a culture that it doesn't happen. Pain, suffering is the big, black, dirty secret that we seem collectively to be too ashamed and afraid to talk about…
I had never seen this picture until a few weeks ago when I was working on Nicholas Wright's play Vincent In Brixton which is a fictionalized account of what might have happened when Vincent Van Gogh stayed in London for a few years as a young man, long before he even dreamt of being an artist. It was an interesting play to do, dealing as it did with love, the pain of losing love, despair, worthlessness, aspiration and the struggle for artistic expression. Pretty much everything that makes life what it is, basically. As part of the process, quite naturally, we all found ourselves increasingly fascinated and absorbed into the drama and character of Van Gogh, his battle to be an artist and his fight against the mental anguish he experienced throughout his life
Everyone knows the story of this great artist - the tortured but inspired genius who died penniless and unknown but produced what are now regarded as among the finest works of art of the modern world. Van Gogh struggled with despair, pain, mental illness and suffering for most of his adult life. His last words, spoken to his brother who was by his bedside as he died, were 'This sorrow will never end'. And yet his work is among the most vibrant and visionary we know. Is it possible that the intensity of his work - which seems to indicate a mind of such raw sensitivity - and the depth of his pain had some kind of correlation? That what made him such a genius also made existing here in this world doubly difficult for him? Of course, some commentators have said that he went bonkers because of the lead in his paints. This is entirely possible, but the fact that he showed signs of mental instability as a young boy suggests otherwise. And besides, all sorts of people get poisoned by something or other - aluminum in cutlery, lead in paint etc - but they don't all produce masterpiece after masterpiece on canvas. Such suggestions inevitably demonstrate the feebleness of what passes for 'scientific' assessments of a man's mind and experience, reducing the epic struggle of a human life to resolve the paradoxes that torment it in such a way that generations of unpoisoned people can relate to and find cathartic, to a daft and meaningless biological accident.
What became clear as we worked on the play - just as it had when I did Jane Eyre in the same theatre exactly a year before - was that if Van Gogh had been alive today, he would have diagnosed with something (depression, bipolar disorder, whatever) and slammed onto anti-depressants, perhaps never producing the works of art he did as a consequence. As we discussed this, the list of great artists who would have suffered the same fate seemed to drift on forever - Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, T S Eliot, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, D H Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett and many others - not to mention some of the greatest philosophers who found themselves seeking to address the problem of suffering and existential angst all their lives - Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato, Satre etc etc. We realized that even our religions all started with a response to the mystery of pain and suffering. What is the Old Testament but a series of stories about surviving overwhelming suffering and persecution, not just meted out by humans but also God (one of the books is called Lamentations for God's sake!)? What is the whole story of the Fall but an expression of the pain of experiencing Knowledge of Good and Evil - ie being conscious and self aware? What is the image of the Crucifixion but an image of facing agony - 'Oh Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?' - or the story of the Garden of Gethsemane? In the East, the whole idea of Liberation (Moksha or Nirvana) is about transcending human suffering. Indeed, the story of the Buddha's journey to Enlightenment begins with him encountering the presence of suffering in the world - an old man, a diseased man and a corpse - and embarking upon the quest to understand what human suffering was and how we might transcend it.
In other words, pretty much all that is noble, extraordinary and true about human culture comes from an awareness of the presence of pain in the world, the need to understand it, comes to terms with it and, perhaps, overcome and transcend it. So why on earth do we in the West (and perhaps elsewhere, I can't speak for other cultures) have this hopeless enfeebled and false attitude towards it? Why do we pretend its not there and run for the hills when it happens to people around us? Why do not represent it in our media, our arts and (gulp) our popular culture, which tries to present a vision of the world in which everything is just one long, grinning, life-long party to which, if you are not invited, you are a loser, a pariah, someone who is as welcome as fart in a spacesuit? In a discussion with one friend about this very subject, I was asked 'Do you think we are the only ones who suffer or do you think everyone howls when they close the door and are alone?' I thought for a moment and said 'No. Everyone suffers. If they didn't, Hamlet would not be the most famous play in the world.' I said Hamlet, but I could just as easily have said King Lear, or Macbeth, or Othello or Measure for Measure. My point was that the theme of suffering in world art and literature gives the game away. It is part of human life. It is integral to who we are. No-one escapes it. And yet increasingly we as a society try to brush it under the carpet or magic it away. The question is: why?
As we rehearsed Vincent In Brixton, a report came out from the Mental Health Foundation about the subject of loneliness. As certain Scientists never hesitate to remind us, the Scientific method is, of course, 'the best way to look at the world' (not Richard Dawkins this time but Jim Al-Khalili). The report said that loneliness was 'increasing', that it might be genetic, that loneliness could lead to unhappiness and depression, that it could shorten life expectancy but that the best thing we a lonely person could do was make friends and socialize more. One part of the report posited the idea that a lack of social interaction was linked to an increase in loneliness. Astonishing, no? I am sure you will agree that this is exactly the kind of startling revelation that we need from Science. Once again, what no-one had ever understood was made clear by rigorous application of the Scientific Method. Thank heavens for that! I look forward to exciting new research into whether bears shit in the woods, whether the Pope is Catholic and whether Paris is a city.
Not everyone met the report with awe and respect. One psychologist appeared in the Guardian complaining that medical science was increasingly pathologising things which were a fundamental part of the human experience, making the situation worse by pushing people who felt lonely or depressed into the belief that there was something seriously wrong with them, that they were mentally ill and thus failing in society, when loneliness and depression have been parts of the human condition from the beginning of history. Suddenly the human race was being divided into two sections: the 'healthy', well adjusted, non-lonely, permanently happy people and the 'sick', lonely, unhappy and maladjusted. Quite naturally, the Scientists doing the testing didn't add themselves to the 'sick' part of society, as that would be subjective. The result, if we started to apply it to how our society was ordered, would be to make those 'sick' people feel even worse because of their loneliness. It would be like extending the most miserable part of adolescence, when you felt the most socially inept in the face of more confident kids, into a universal principle for the whole of your adult life. Its hard to see how helpful such a conclusion is!
Earlier in the year, around Christmas, Depression was the subject which erupted again in the media after the author Marion Keyes posted an entry on her Blog apologizing to her readers for the fact that she could not write because her Depression was making her almost incapable of moving, let alone thinking. Suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork supporting her and saying 'Thank God you have said all this! I suffer from Depression too and the social stigma is intolerable!' In the Daily Telegraph (I was staying with my Grandmother) had an article by a doctor admitting to his own Depression and the need for it to be better understood. But his own conclusions, couched as the best medical science could say on the matter, were useless. Depression was identifiable if you could tick any of ten behavioral patterns, which included not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, not wanting to eat, feeling listless and exhausted, lacking self-esteem etc and, it was suggested, might be exponentially linked to things such as bereavement, family trauma, sexual abuse, losing one's job etc etc. One could not help wondering if Medical Scientists studying the subject had ever actually had emotional lives. Of COURSE bereavement, sexual abuse and other quite naturally painful and traumatic events which happen in someone's life cause misery, suffering, despair and grief - events one can read about in the lives of pretty much ALL the artists and writers I mentioned above. Does this mean that anyone who feels miserable because of something terrible that has happened to them is suffering from Depression, is sick and needs medication? Or does it mean that we are human beings with vulnerable emotional lives struggling to make sense of what is happening to them?
On the London Underground, a Mental Health Organisation had Frunk Bruno and Tricia bravely speaking out about their own Depression and Bipolar Disorders. I was very proud of their bravery in doing so, but even then Frank was quoted as saying that Bipolar Disorder could be triggered by 'Bereavement, family trauma' and other things and once again I found myself thinking - NATURALLY! Traumatic events cause mental pain, just as an injured leg causes physical pain. The problem is that the solution to an injured leg - pain killers - does not necessarily work with mental pain. According to another article I read during Vincent In Brixton, the UK, the US and the Ukraine all register as having the highest levels of Depression in the world. The anti-depressants culture in the UK and the US is, as we know, astronomical, with people being prescribed drugs when they are unhappy or going through understandable pain and trauma rather than because of diagnosable clinical Depression. Meanwhile trials are increasingly showing that most anti-depressants are placebos. Oliver James, in a recent article, actually said that a lot of anti-depressants are usually sugar pills, of no more 'medical' value than those Dawkins et al claim homeopaths are giving people. Paul Bentall's book Doctoring the Mind argues the same thing - that Psychiatric Treatment is not shown to be effective in so many cases, whereas other processes, such as the more traditional 'Talking Cure' (ie Psychotherapy or Analysis) or CBT work better. Both Bentall and James argue that those old hoodooey things compassion and understanding are more effective than any number of drugs in helping people work through their pain. In other words, its not a medical condition but part of human life. We need to start from there. Statistics (sigh) suggest that 1 in 4 people suffer from some kind of mental illness in their life. If this is true (and it feels more like 4 in 4 in my experience, now that we seem to be ranking being unhappy as a mental illness at the moment), then why are we pretending its not happening? Or do we think that high levels of suicide, alcohol or drug abuse are all signs of a healthy society? People like Richard Dawkins attack religious people for seeking 'false comfort', but which form of 'false comfort' is more injurious to the health? Its hard to decide...
And where do you stop? The US and the UK are two of the most affluent and comfortable societies in the world, where the threat of sickness and disease is seriously reduced, where few of the privations suffered by our ancestors (and even most of our contemporaries in the world!) no longer threaten us, where life expectancy is higher than ever and yet we are among the most miserable and depressed people on the planet. What does that say about our society? What is the missing ingredient which we are denying ourselves which could perhaps fill this hole and make us complete? And why are we not helping ourselves to cope with it beyond drugs and medications? Could it be a fatal lack of attention to the reality of our inner lives - that so-called fairy tale of subjective human experience that some of our most prominent Scientist tell us simply doesn't exist? After all, what is it that makes us feel pain? Aspirations not met, love not received, lives not lived, hopes crushed, dreams unfulfilled, loss, lack of self-esteem, dignity taken away. These are the things that cause suffering and depression. Sure, there may be physiological things too, but the sheer widespread extent of human pain suggests that this cannot be the only explanation, which means that its not drugs which will solve our problems, but addressing the core aspects of who we are as human beings, what we need and what we hope for.
And this is my point. Like everyone else, I have gone through my own fair share of pain - emotional, mental and physic - and despair. No-one avoids it. At least I have not met anyone who does. In my work - theatre - I deal with it every day. One thing I am grateful about in my chosen profession is the fact that no great play shies away from the struggles that human experience brings, from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment and T S Eliot's The Waste Land by way of Shakespeare's King Lear or Ibsen's Ghosts. It has meant that the reality that life involves struggles and dark periods has never been kept from me. But the sense that when I was going through them I was failing or a pariah is something I have not escaped, simply because this is so all-pervading in our culture. The loneliness of pain is something we all know about. Most of us feel when we are in that dark place that we are utterly alone, failing as human beings, excluded from this mythical breed of human who HAS NO PROBLEMS. And its all crap. That darkness is part of us. It comes about when we experience disharmony, disappointment, pain, loss. It is as legitimate as our feelings of joy, happiness, wholeness and fulfillment. If the greatest of our minds had to deal with it - and it was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase 'Black Dog' for his Depression - why should we demonize ourselves when we do?
The reason is, of course, that it frightens us. No-one wants to experience despair and darkness. No-one wants pain. With almost superstitious foolishness, we feel that one person's pain might be catching, which means that so often in a crisis so many people run to avoid it. Its then when we find out who our true friends are. We don't stigmatize someone who has broken a leg or had an accident, but grief, despair, emotional pain - these are things which still seem to be viewed as some kind of draining and emotional moral failure. Why should this be so? Is it because its harder to deal with and opens abysses of recognition that we don't want to face? Perhaps. But in that case, what is it about ourselves and our own vulnerability that we are so afraid of?
But I am not going to glamourise suffering. Its horrendous. Of course we want to avoid it. But in doing so we have deprived ourselves of any means of DEALING with it when we can't. By denying the reality of suffering, we deny ourselves the ability to deal with it. But making ourselves feel like outcastes when it happens, we intensify the suffering and make it worse. By pretending our minds are just illusions, the product of solely physiological phenomena, bereft of purpose or meaning or even choice, we deny ourselves the possibility of meaning in our suffering and reduce ourselves to helpless automatons.
And there is more to it than that. In losing any sense of life as a journey, we have deprived ourselves of any possibility of growth, of any notion that we can face our suffering, work through it, understand it and perhaps heal it, becoming stronger and wiser in the process. This was the whole basis of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism et al. It was the whole basis of Greek culture, of Western Philosophy, of books like The Brothers Karamazov, or plays like King Lear or Waiting For Godot, of the Psychology of Jung or even Freud. Human beings have inner lives which, if not nourished and understood, wither and die, causing more suffering. Reduction of us to meat machines or economic units disenfranchises us from ourselves, making it harder and harder to deal with anything by taking away the structures that give us meaning. One does not need to have a concept of God or religion for meaning to be restored. For each individual life has meaning enough - indeed even the sensation of meaninglessness depends upon the sensation of meaning. And this leads me onto my main point, which is that life needs to be faced in its duality - possessed of joy and pain. Indeed the two are merely sides of the same coin, so perhaps not a duality but a unity. Deny the existence of one and the other becomes meaningless. As someone once said, laughter that never ends is madness, as we see from the endlessly manic capering of 'celebrities' on TV. What has Big Brother been than one long catalogue of attempts to prove that mindlessness and grinning inanity is what life is all about - that one can avoid pain if one just tries hard enough not to experience it? What is the myth of celebrity culture but the belief that if one is famous, beautiful, rich etc all one's problems will miraculously vanish? And yet why do people aspire to being a celebrity? Exactly because they have problems which they want to vanish, problems which just get splayed on every street corner once that celebrity is achieved. Davina McCall, the Patron Saint of Celebrity Culture, said that when she got her first MTV show she cried all night because the emptiness she hoped it would fill, the sense of worthlessness she thought it would counter, didn't happen. And yet she carried on making thousands by peddling the myth that screaming Celeb Culture was the thing to aspire to. Of what use was that?
Unless we face up to our humanity - unless we do as the Buddha did, which was to leave the gilded cage of an existence in which all human suffering is hidden from us (a more accurate description of how we live in the West I couldn't think of!) - we cannot hope to overcome our own suffering or live life to the full. Indeed, we cannot hope to grow. The artificial elimination of suffering - through drugs, television, by hiding away the sick, the poor, the old or the dying - is not the actual elimination of suffering. Nor am I suggesting we should be seeking out suffering or that it is a wonderful thing. God knows I saw suffering as we can't imagine in India! But I also found that in not hiding it away in India, it made it all the more easy to face. I only mean that we need to embrace what life is again, to embrace its painful side as well as its joyous side and, perhaps, seek to unite these two things again so that they cease to be at war with each other. A society which ignores its own suffering is a society which lies to itself. Of course, if we want to dispel the lie, it means facing up to a lot of painful truths about who and what we are, relinquishing the myth of control and admitting that we have messy, watery, frightening emotional and spiritual lives which we might have to engage with. But those of us who have been in those dark places - ask yourself, did it help pretending that they were not happening or avoiding talking to anyone about it? If we were open and honest about it, which is different from being self-indulgent about it, who knows what kind of transformations would we cause in ourselves?
Vast amounts of the human race face these problems every day. It isn't easy being human. But we cannot be anything else. Perhaps its time to try. Otherwise, perhaps, we will be left like Van Gogh with his last words: 'This sorrow will never end'. But facing it need not be terrifying. It could be the most creative thing we could do. After all, look what it brought out in Van Gogh. Few of us want to go to the extremes he went to, but its worth asking the question: if someone had offered him total peace if he would only give up on his Art, what would he have chosen?
No-one wants pain. But if we want peace, we have to accept it is there. It is the only way to deal with it…