Almost immediately after posting the last post on equanimity, it occurred to me that I needed to follow that up with a discussion of the traditional Christian principle of “long-suffering” in relation to the meaning of equanimity, and of “long-suffering” as an aspect, too, of what Buddhism calls “non-aversion” or “non-attachment”.
And here again, we come across one of those ironies of Nietzsche’s philosophy. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” is simply a restatement of the Christian principle of long-suffering.
To patiently, or even gladly, endure hardship and duress with equanimity — that is quite antithetical to the mental-rational consciousness in which the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain and suffering is pretty much the essence of “rationality” itself — the so-called “Pleasure Principle” or pursuit of happiness. A man I once read wrote that Nietzsche’s “what does not kill me makes me stronger” was absurd and clearly false. But that’s because he understood “rational” to be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. But even in those terms it isn’t absurd. It’s also the principle of inoculation and immunisation. Disease can stimulate the body to developing greater health and strength.
But the kind of pain and suffering I’m speaking to is not your typical physical maladies. It’s quite rational to seek an end to a toothache or a headache, or to seek relief from physical pain. The idea that you should endure physical pain for it’s own sake “because the Bible tells me so” is just plain nuts. If your body is broken, you work to fix it. Simply as that.
The condition of life is pain and suffering. It’s even the first “Noble Truth” of Buddhism. Physical existence exerts an always uncomfortable pressure and stress upon the living organism. This world is a world of time and death, and the mortal self in time feels the anguish of that quite deeply. It’s the principle of “impermanence” and of the transitoriness of things, and it’s at the root of all the major world religions. In Buddhism, it’s called “samsara” or samsaric existence, and samsaric existence is ruled over by the karmic law of action and reaction. Likewise, the Muslims say “everything is perishing except His face”. It’s the same principle. It’s also the root of Heraclitus’s “philosophy of becoming” — all is flux. Heraclitus was called “the Greek Buddha” for that and other reasons. His was not your typical “Greek Mind”.
And in the condition of “Liquid Modernity“, as Zygmunt Bauman calls the late modern period, we’ve become quite familiar with that, where the only constant seems to be “permanent revolution” or change. The supremacy of the “Greek Mind” since Parmenides is pretty much over in the West. The belief in “final solutions” and of “the end of history” are largely delusional, as was William Buckley’s contemporary definition of a conservative as someone who stands athwart the railway tracks of history yelling “Stop!”, which was also reflected in the neo-conservative screed of Richard Perle and David Frum’s An End to Evil, even as they promoted “creative destruction”. But, as the saying goes, “time makes hypocrites of us all” and conservatism today is especially riddled with self-contradiction — hoist on its own pitard, as it were. But so is the problem of “illiberal liberalism”.
Loss and lack is the condition of samsaric existence, and that brings pain and suffering, or malaise (“dis-ease”) and “unsatisfactoriness”, which is the usual translation of the word “dukkha“, although a better one might be “malaise”. The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, even wrote a pretty good book about that which he titled The Malaise of Modernity which has been linked to the “emptiness” of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism.
Nietzsche extolled the value of suffering and hardship for the reason that he never really gave up his Christian convictions. What he turned his back on was Christians and Christianity, which he saw as degenerated. His revaluation of values is just a reworking of Christian themes and in this case, of the value of welcoming “long-suffering”, patient endurance of hardship and duress, as being salutary for the soul. “What does not kill me makes me stronger”.
In the old Dark Age Blog, I once wrote that it was the fate of man to be stuck between the hammer of God and the anvil of the Earth. God was a jeweller, and that the purpose of samsaric existence was, in a sense, to form a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — in effect, to make a true human being out of an ape. Rosenstock-Huessy once said something quite similar, although perhaps less harsh — that the history of Man “is God’s poem”, and the last lines have yet to be written. (Sorry, Dr. Fukuyama!).
We all know the stories of people who, under extreme hardship and duress, discover resources within themselves that they never thought or knew they had — the “apocalyptic moment” as it were. And, likewise, we all know of “psychosomatic illness” as the soul attempting to “work out” problems of its functioning through and in physical terms. In some cases, well-known, the inner self will intentionally engineer outer hardships and difficulties just for that purpose. As Nietzsche put it, the authentic self is not that ego-nature that says “I”, but the self which does “I”. That’s the distinction we want to draw between “will” and “intent”, and parallel to that, between “belief” and “faith”.
You probably also know many people who seem to continuously get themselves into difficulties, and usually its the same difficulty over and over again. Whether or not an inner problem is resolved by outward suffering — and resolution here means the restoration of an inner equilibrium — very much depends upon the ego or conscious attitude. “Equanimity” is that proper attitude. And I’m sure your familiar with Einstein’s famous quip that the very definition of insanity is repeating the same thing (or “solution”) over and over and over again yet expecting different results each time. The function of suffering in the spiritual sense is to ultimately enlighten the ego-consciousness. And as the Buddhists properly say, samsara is simply ignorance, and once ignorance is dispelled, “nirvana and samsara are the same”.
The end of suffering only comes with insight, and that’s victory in those terms. That’s Nietzsche’s “self-overcoming”, as “becoming what you are”. Becoming what you are means becoming conscious of what is presently unconscious, and this often involves enduring hardship, cruelty, and suffering for the mortal self or ego-nature. As Rumi put it “the cure for the disease is in the disease” and “suffering is a gift. In it is a hidden mercy”.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. ~Rumi
That’s a pretty good description of equanimity, too, and of the Buddhist principle of non-aversion. It’s not for any moral reason. It’s for learning. Long-suffering is for learning. And if it doesn’t lead to learning, it’s just pointless suffering, and it’s certainly not about reward and punishment.
There is also social pain and suffering, which are reflected in Rosenstock’s four enemies of society, in which case they are symptoms of a society not functioning effectively, which has lost the equilibrium of things, and that is called “injustice”. But the equilibrium of things is the balance of past and future (or origin and destiny), or of the inner and outer (or culture and nature).
Homeostasis is another term for equilibrium, although I dislike the imputation of “stasis” because it’s dynamic equilibrium expressed in bodily terms — the respiratory system, the circulatory system, the nervous system, the metabolic system all find their counterparts, also, in Blake’s four Zoas or the four “animal spirits” (nafs) of Rumi’s poetry. They are the familiar four elements of the classical conception as Air, Water, Fire, and Earth respectively, and at various times and in different cultures, what is called “soul” or “psyche” has been identified with each, and accordingly you got vitalism, animism, materialism, etc — in the spiritus or pneuma, in the blood or heart, in the brain, or even in the digestive organs as the appetitive nature. The end results of these specialisations of consciousness were never really satisfactory.
“Homeostatic failure” is another term for “death” — loss of dynamic equilibrium, loss of equanimity.