The following piece was shortlisted for the New Philosopher Writer’s Award for the theme ‘Purpose’. Both humbled and grateful to have lost to two fantastic writers, I thought I’d share my piece here anyway for the sake of reflection on the pandemic.
In Sickness and In Health — On finding purpose in suffering
“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom” Schopenhauer allegedly said. He thought that permanent happiness was not only unattainable but also undesirable, as he believed that work, worry, and toil were necessary to a man’s life- otherwise, what would he do with his time? Man suffers as he strives towards the heights of success, and is left feeling bored if he does not strive towards anything at all. For Schopenhauer, these were the only two options. As pessimistic as this view on human happiness is, it felt truer than ever during the Covid-19 lockdown. Bored and quarantined, those of us who were furloughed or made redundant had to fill our suddenly available time with new activities and goals, while essential workers fought the ever-present threat of a deadly virus. However, the purpose of fighting Covid-19 was the same for both ill and well during lockdown: Trying to avoid suffering, if not a painful death, and finding new pursuits in spite of it.
In her book Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag tells us how metaphors around tuberculosis suggest that we have for a long time attached a sense of meaning to illness and suffering. Patients with TB were often seen as more psychologically complex and even looked sexual, as their cheeks turned red because of the fever. Tuberculosis was thought of as a “decorative, often lyrical death”, and romanticised to the point that it became the preferred way of giving death a meaning. For other people suffering from the disease, it gave them the opportunity to finally behave well now that their inevitable fate was staring them right in the face, rushing them to reevaluate their priorities and how to spend their finite time. Sontag tells us about the sixty-year-old civil servant in Kurosawa’s film Ikuru (1952) suffering from terminal stomach cancer. With only one year left to live, he quits his job and decides to redeem his mediocre life by taking up the cause of a slum neighbourhood. “At the least, the calamity of disease can clear the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character.”
Covid-19 has made the constant presence of death and disease more visible for us. It’s fair to assume that, deep down, we’re always trying to find purpose in the face of death and suffering. It’s just that we don’t always think about it. Whether that is by living unapologetically exactly because of what awaits us at the end, or by for example leaving behind a legacy in the pursuit of immortality. However, what is different today from, let’s say, 200 years ago, is that we do not only live longer but can also afford to live more dangerously, surviving more illnesses and accidents and all that comes with our bodies ageing. Today’s medical advancements have removed us so much from our biological fate, that death is now seen as a failure of treatment, rather than an inevitable reality. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes: “Disease, which could be considered as much a part of nature as is health, became the synonym of whatever was ‘unnatural’.” We reject illness as a part of life and only live to defeat it.
With this contemporary view of mortality in mind, surgeon Atul Gawande explores how the success of our medical landscape has changed our relationship with dying and suffering in his book Being Mortal. He tells the stories of patients approaching their end of life and the kinds of questions they’re faced with, as well as wondering about the true purpose of medicine and palliative care. Is medicine supposed to prolong or maintain our quality of life? How much suffering are some people willing to endure if it means they can still watch ice cream while watching football, and when does life stop being worth living? How much purpose can we find while suffering in the first place? As his patients were given the option to start treatments that could be detrimental to their overall health and quality of life, many patients found themselves asking these questions all too late in life, with family members, often unfamiliar with the answers, now burdened to make those decisions on their behalf.
Presented with the choice of either seeking hedonistic pleasures in the everyday or stoically accepting the current state of things, many in lockdown eventually reevaluated what it means for them to live well during a time of collective suffering, especially with a purpose that’s not manufactured by our workplaces. Schopenhauer believed that we should rather aim for a greater absence of pain in our lives and that of others, instead of seeking fleeting happiness and pleasure. I like to think that he would’ve approved of the increased solidarity amongst people that emerged during lockdown, with more than 6 million people volunteering time to help people during the crisis, and 1 in 10 helping a stranger related to the crisis, according to a poll by Amnesty International UK. Neighbourhoods started setting up COVID support and Whatsapp groups that helped them look after each other, delivering food and medicine for those shielding, and some even checked in with others over the phone to make sure they aren’t feeling too isolated.
As logistically, emotionally, and medically challenging Covid-19 has been, it’s brought us closer to a reality of suffering, death, and disease we lived in long before the pandemic. Schopenhauer’s view on the human condition might have been quite cynical, but perhaps he was onto something when he suggested that a more appropriate form of two men greeting each other should not be monsieur, sir but rather fellow sufferer, compagnon de miseres, as it would make us see ourselves in a more realistic state, and remind us of what he suggests are the most necessary of all things to exercise in life: “tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”