Plato, Albert Camus and Donald Glover: How To Handle Endless Suffering
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
This year has taken its toll on a lot of us, physically and mentally. We’re experiencing a global pandemic, there are widespread deaths, economic turmoil, protests and riots around the world and it may even feel like suffering is at an all time high. And yet all of these things are common occurrences. Philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus once said “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
Our world has been afflicted with plagues and wars since the dawn of man and it hasn’t stopped. In the past decade the United States had the longest war in its history against Afghanistan, but it wasn’t obvious because life in the West wasn’t affected as much. In the same way a plague ran through West Africa in the form of Ebola but it didn’t affect us in the West so it didn’t make the headlines. And now turmoil and plagues have struck the West. And social media has exacerbated all of the symptoms of the moment. Suffering is a constant in this life and yet we would usually be able to find solace during our alone time. But now social media has brought the turmoil into our minds amidst our quiet moments.
Usually we’d be able to dim the woes of the world in the subjective experience. Suffering is a constant in the subjective experience and at one point in time your focus was able to remain on overcoming that. You were able to see a problem, find a solution, be faced with inevitable suffering and face it head on, and feel a form of accomplishment from overcoming a hurdle. But now with our rapid pace of information intake, all of the woes of the world are also yours. Every single problem that is happening everywhere in the world is shown to me, and unlike my personal problems, I have no solutions to these problems.
I can do my part, I can donate and I can speak out for change, but ultimately where is my solace if I can’t affect change? There will always be problems. There is no stop to the fundamentals of what we are fighting. You’ll see misleading statements like “end racism”. There are systems with ingrained systemic and institutionalized racism, homophobia and classism, and they should be dismantled, but these feelings ultimately reside within people. And they always have. People that look exactly the same have been warring for centuries because of the pettiest differences. And that’s just how people are. It’s not even because people are bad, it’s because people are insecure.
Racism does not necessarily have a genetic or evolutionary basis, but is primarily a psychological trait and more specifically, a psychological defense mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety. There is some evidence for this view from the psychological theory of "terror management." Research has shown that when people are given reminders of their own mortality, they feel a sense of anxiety and insecurity, which they respond to by becoming more prone to status-seeking, materialism, greed, prejudice, and aggression. They are more likely to conform to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups.
According to Terror Management Theory, the motivation of these behaviors is to enhance one’s sense of significance or value in the face of death, or to gain a sense of security or belonging, as a way of protecting oneself against the threat of mortality.
In my view, racism is a similar response to a more general sense of insignificance, unease, or inadequacy. And granted we should dismantle institutions with ingrained racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, but with the understanding that these are still going to be feelings individuals have. And there’s really no way to get rid of that. Hate and fear exist. Suffering exists.The only thing we can control is ourselves, our motivations and our understanding.
The way I’m trying to overcome the suffering which consumes most of our information intake right now is by rebelling against the void of suffering that makes up a lot of life. Its by facing that anxiety of insignificance, unease and inadequacy head on, not by associating with ideologies and conforming to divisive ideas of national or ethnic pride, but by creating something to fix the problems I see in the world and outlasts me, and finding the essence of what I remain through all the changes that we will all go through in life.
As a black man in North America I’ve faced my fair share of absurd suffering and life altering changes. That means suffering that I did not cause and could not prevent, like this virus, racism, crime, death, financial strife, car accidents, aging and many of the undesirable moments life has to offer. And one thing I’ve noticed is that the people around me who have endured the worst that life has to offer, have made it out of each predicament. I have family who were gruesomely orphaned in Africa and went through totalitarian communist regimes that made them escape their countries, went through unbelievable financial strife and medical failures that made them lose their siblings and were still able to leave all that they ever knew, to build a better life for their children. And they’re still able to laugh, talk and be hopeful that tomorrow will be better than today. That’s what I came from.
And yet I’m still a kid from Toronto, and that’s me too. I’m a kid in an industrial, metropolitan city where endless hedonism is time well spent and there isn’t really a community element or the enforced idea of a higher power that is watching your every move and giving you the comfort of meaning. And in that world it’s easy to go full Bukowski and turn into a nihilistic, existentialist, alcoholic during times of duress and turmoil. It’s easy to focus on the inherent meaninglessness and suffering that a universe which presents problems and doesn’t talk back can seem to have. And that’s why I rebel.
Humanity and civilization is the totality of that rebellion. We’re generations of people that stood in the face of certain death and built something that lasted far beyond their lifetime, a symbolic immortality. Everything we see in our societies, including ourselves, were created by people who rebelled against death. Man evolved escaping predators, going through wars, diseases and dark ages and we were still able to imagine a better tomorrow for those that come after us and built new forms of agriculture, systems of social and political governance, art, architecture and space travel. We were still able to extrapolate beauty from the guaranteed suffering every human being must face and alchemize it to create a better and more meaningful society.
It’s easy for our nihilism to take over as we talk about the faults of the world. And that’s just the way we’re wired. We’re evolutionarily wired to spot the negatives, our fears and things that need to be fixed. But there are many things about modern society that are great. The fact that we have created technology, vaccines and medicines, breakthroughs in science and amazing art is proof of our dedication to rebellion in the face of death. We create a hero ideal and aspire for it and that is the model that our modern societies, regardless of their pitfalls, strive for.
Ideally, we put kids through years of school, make them decide what they’re gonna be and then go to school to train to become that which they idealized in order to add to society through it, and ultimately rebel against certain suffering. But all of that was lost behind the veil of the mundane. And now people are unemployed and out of school, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to extrapolate meaning from one's occupation. And even further than that many people worked jobs that didn’t add value to society and those people thought that the meaning they seek would be found in free time, and now their free time lacks as much meaning as the time they spent slaving away. So all we see is suffering and remain in a void of meaninglessness without a capitalistic agenda to pass the time. So if your meaning can’t be found in occupation where can it be found?