Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Day 4: The Spectrum of Suffering

Today instead of talking about what I did because it really wasn't much, I want to respond to something that Clare posted on a blog post of Alex's. (Clare and Alex seem to be who I will be traveling with down this BEDA rode so you should get to know them.)

I'm taking what Clare said a bit out of context but I find it also works for what I mean. She wrote "In fiction, the problems matter. In fiction, when something tugs at the morals of a character, the character does something about it, and when the character tries hard at it, it works."

What I really want to focus on are the phrases "In fiction, the problems matter" and "when the character tries hard at it, it works." "The problems matter." "It works." This reminded me of something I have been thinking about for a while now. That is what I call the Spectrum of Suffering and also the fact that fiction kills you.

Fiction creates these neat little world where authors put variations of problems that can happen in ours. They use the problems in our world as an example for what they create in their own. Then when we read about these, we use them as examples for how to solve the problem. It's like fiction is one of those transforming boxes from math class that I never understood that you put a number into and it modifies it. Or like orders being passed down a line of generals and officials at Valley Forge, slowly being translated from one language to another until they were shouted out in English by Alexander Hamilton. Fiction is a way of passing on ideas without discussing them directly. And when this happens, they tend to become inflated.

Oh, your boyfriend doesn't like your best friend? Here. Now one is a vampire and the other a werewolf and their families have been feuding for ages. That will help.

You're trying to make friends at your new school and want to figure out what the point of living is? Will it help if the girl you're in love with kills herself while driving to her mother's grave with a vase of metaphor flowers in the back?

You've been friends with this girl for ages and you've just been through a really rough patch in your relationship with her and you abandoned her but you still love her? Why don't you make out in the middle of a war after killing a bit of your enemy's soul!?

Now here is where the Spectrum of Suffering comes in. It is a very normal thing when you're feeling down for someone to try and comfort you by saying "Well it could be worse. You have a house. You have food. You live in a democracy. You're not a starving child in Bangladesh or a rape victim in Sudan or an Iraq war veteran with PTSD."

To them I would like to say "Yes. I know I am none of those things. But how does that fact make me feel any better? Reminding me of all of the suffering in the world only makes me feel more miserable."

Because here is the thing: No matter how hard you try, you cannot imagine the pain of something you have never experienced. It is like trying to remember exactly how it felt when you broke your arm. You just can't bring that feeling back.

Pain you feel cannot be conveyed to someone else so do not let them tell you it is no big deal. Your pain is not imagined and because you can't feel someone else's emotions, what is happening inside your head is just as intense as what is happening in someone else's. When it feels like the end of the world, it damn well feels like the end of the world.

So the Spectrum of Suffering does not extend between people. Everyone has their own Spectrum. When I found out I may be grounded due to FAA regulations back on January 31st, it felt like the sky had fallen and I was suffocating beneath it but I still couldn't reach it. If my Spectrum runs from 1 to 10 I would mark this as about a 9. But Alex and Clare each have different benchmarks than I do and there is no way to possibly compare them.

Fiction minimizes our suffering by expanding it. It makes your everyday problems appear trifling when you compare failing your math test to winning back the love of Daisy Buchanan. But Jay Gatsby did not take the test and therefore cannot tell you who is feeling worse.

I love fiction, but it can be belittling.

So whenever someone puts their arm around your shoulder and starts to say "Get some perspective-" or "Well this may seem like a big deal-" or "Think of starving kids in Africa-" or "At least you aren't chasing after a white whale", just look at them and say "No."


  1. If we were IRL right now, I'd be applauding like mad.
    Absolutely beautiful post, Heather. Seriously. What is with you two (Clare and you) suddenly becoming these epic philosophers?

    God I wish I weren't so tired so I could write out some meaningful response.
    But basically, I think you hit it right on the nail (that's the expression, right?). I completely agree with your point about trying to minimize your suffering by comparing it to ~bigger~ ~worse~ things.

    "When it feels like the end of the world, it damn well feels like the end of the world."
    Preach, sister.
    Emotions are not rational things. They don't depend on external factors. Your life could be great compared to some people, but internally, you can be fighting the same amount of pain and suffering war veterans with PTSD are facing, or whatever.
    Not to diminish the pain of people who have experienced extraordinarily horrible things.
    But what happens in your head afterward does not always depend on the gravity of the situation. It's unique to your own mind.

    That quote from Clare really is fascinating. "In fiction, the problems matter." Hm. I'm gonna think about that.

    Love you <3

  2. Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. Ugh I wish I could add something intelligent here, but thank you.