The War on Suffering
The war on suffering has not only robbed us of resilience. It has sold us a mirage that is making us miserable.
This piece was originally published at The Free Press, where I write the regular column Get Serious. You can read more on American Seriousness here.
Just as I learned I was pregnant with my first son, I saw the film 1917, a brutal World War I drama. I was struck by a final scene: not the one where the protagonist sprints across a trench, but one showing hundreds of men having their limbs amputated.
I must confess I watched 1917 a half dozen times before delivering my son. As morbid as it sounds, I needed to see suffering more extreme than what I would endure so when the time came for my own bravery, I’d remember it was once far, far worse.
But in my world—the world of tech—many would like to do away with the pain of childbirth. Last year, various tech pioneers including Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin and Sahil Lavingia, founder of e-commerce platform Gumroad, expressed a dire need for artificial wombs to end the “high burden of pregnancy.”
If you’ve missed this piece of realized science fiction, pediatric researchers in 2017 grew a baby lamb inside a large plastic pouch at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a scientific achievement that could soon benefit the most extreme preterm babies. One day, we could grow baby humans inside giant Ziploc bags. You know, kind of like a hatchery.
When I asked a group of young women based in Silicon Valley what they thought of this idea, to my surprise, they celebrated the development. They confessed that in their minds, childbirth is dangerous. Destructive, even. Details of horrendous birth experiences they’d heard from mothers—along with media reports investigating the rising maternal death rate in the U.S.—led some of them to believe this act of self-sacrifice bordered on martyrdom and was neither fair nor worth it.
One summarized her views of childbirth saying: “I look forward to artificial wombs because it will finally equalize men and women. Women have always had to bear this unique suffering.”
I’ve since come to realize that the techno-futurists are not at all unique in their view, but reflect a broader shift in American culture. Left and right can’t seem to agree on anything these days, but on the subject of suffering there is near consensus: eradicating it in full is the common goal of government, technology, medicine, and science.
The origin of our collective war on suffering is debatable, but if one had to choose a moment when the most visible and acute forms of human suffering became optional in America, it was one week in late January almost exactly fifty years ago, when a progressive Supreme Court and a Republican president codified the right for men and women not to suffer as their forefathers and mothers had done.
On January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade effectively ended federal and state laws that required pregnant women to give birth. Five days later, the Selective Service announced the end of conscription, at the direction of President Nixon. There would be no further draft calls, ending the expectation that all healthy American men at the age of 18 could meet their maker on the battlefield.
That week in January five decades ago is somehow lost to history despite the stunning and material impact of these changes—few remember that both young men and women were for the first time given the option to forgo these once-universal forms of sacrifice and suffering. The pain that the majority of Americans had felt in previous generations was no longer an inevitable requirement of life.
Most Americans view these changes as clear examples of progress. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that only 23 percent of Americans are in favor of a military draft today, down from nearly 40 percent in the early 1990s. Recent polls from Gallup reveal most Americans are pro-choice, with views that fall somewhere in line with European laws: a majority favor legal abortion in the first trimester, and oppose it in the second (55%) and third (71%).
Law is one domain that has particularly curtailed suffering, especially the physical type: the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1970s and 1980s in the name of individual rights and dignity; the state-by-state campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s to abolish the death penalty. Or, more recently, the growth of the right-to-die movement and its legalization in 10 states plus D.C. if given a fatal prognosis from a physician—a right that our friends in Canada have expanded to include chronic mental illness or economic hardship.
Just as lawmakers have sought to end suffering, so has the scientific community, which focuses now on afflictions of the mind. The rising prevalence of depression has grown in line with mass use of antidepressants since the FDA approved Prozac in 1987. The next year, nearly 2.5 million Americans received prescriptions; over the following 15 years that number would grow to more than 33 million. A third of Americans now show signs of clinical depression and anxiety according to the Census Bureau, exacerbated by Covid lockdowns. And even before Covid, teenage suicide and depression were soaring, with 13 percent of teens experiencing a major depressive episode, a 60 percent increase from 2007 to 2019.
Then there was the literal campaign to “end pain” by the American medical establishment, which led the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to erroneously endorse OxyContin as a side-effect-free cure-all. It’s now clear that Purdue Pharma started a national epidemic of death by opioid, which has culminated in over 100,000 overdose deaths, mostly by fentanyl, in 2021 alone.
Technology, meanwhile, has waged its own war on suffering, striving to eradicate even the mildest forms of it. Whether by rewriting the rules of “harmful” speech or erasing internet clowns, a handful of companies became the ultimate arbiters of what is deemed safe in our virtual world. These same companies espoused corporate cultures that sought to ease suffering, too. Look no further than the example of Google, which pioneered the anxiety-free workplace with an all-inclusive resort-style campus of gratis dining and massage therapy, while encouraging employee walkouts and petitions against such appalling business activities as working with the federal government.
In a culture that has no reverence or tolerance for suffering of any kind, even the smallest forms of it can seem like oppression.
In no way am I suggesting that reducing maternal morbidity is bad or that returning to trench warfare is the key to happiness. Who can look at images of true suffering from the recent earthquake in Turkey or the ongoing civilian casualties from the war in Ukraine and see anything other than a senseless hell? These horrific events also remind us that violent suffering still exists, and it is noble to work to reduce it.
But eradicating suffering in this country—or at least striving to reach that utopian goal—has come with some unforeseen consequences. Among them: a loss for what to replace suffering with. And the results of the multi-decade war on suffering haven’t been all that impressive. Recent headlines show no one’s coping very well these days, with growing depression and hopelessness among teenage girls and the “crisis of men,” who lag behind women in education and the workplace.
Though we may not realize it, nearly all of our modern cultural debates and ailments stem from the contemporary belief that suffering is not a natural or essential part of the human condition. The war on suffering has not only robbed us of resilience; it has sold us a mirage that is making us miserable.
It is not a coincidence that the modern campaign to eradicate suffering commenced just as religiosity in general and Christianity in particular began to decline at a rapid pace in America. There is no religion that doesn’t embrace suffering as integral to its teaching. Christianity deified it, with adherents wearing a symbol of torture as a symbol of their belief. Buddhism declares suffering its First Noble Truth. Stoicism acknowledges suffering while rejecting its dominance, and modern philosophers such as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”
Many of these ancient beliefs are being replaced with piecemeal spirituality, or what Ross Douthat recently described as “magical thinking,” which is not inclined to acknowledge the need for suffering as a redemptive or meaningful part of life.
The real question, then, is why our attempt to eradicate suffering isn’t working. Most of our modern culture wars are waged in the name of harm reduction, safetyism, and relief from the mildest form of suffering—once referred to as adversity. With so much focus on comfort and safety, why aren’t we. . . happier?
Perhaps in our attempts to end suffering, we now see a culture obsessed with synthetic suffering of our own creation; not immediate, real pain from inflation or economic uncertainty, but distant fears that feel so very real they inflict psychological trauma on the young, so we’re told. Examples include the doomsday triad of never-ending climate paranoia, the twentieth-century throwback to nuclear war with Russia, and the looming destruction of humanity by a soon-to-be sentient AI that will steal our jobs and replace our influencers. Sprinkle on some Chinese spy balloons or lingering pandemic hysteria and you’d have reason never to leave your house.
But while these synthetic forms of suffering have replaced the communal and more tangible pains of life (shared sacrifice for pursuits nobler and more permanent than oneself), they do not reap the gift that suffering offers us when one overcomes it: resilience. And resilience in our people, our institutions, and even the physical infrastructure of our cities is increasingly deemed the missing ingredient in all aspects of American life.
I started this essay about 18 hours before the arrival of my second son, knowing full well what was ahead of me. Knowing that I’d feign bravery until I no longer could; knowing that I wouldn’t forgo the comforts that modern medicine affords; knowing that somehow, the mind would miraculously soften the memory of the ordeal once new life emerged. And believing that this suffering, though humiliating to discuss and endure, remains at the heart of the noblest pursuit of my life.
We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?
I disagree. I'm strongly in favor of continuing this "war on suffering," if it really needs to be framed that way.
So was the Buddha. His entire goal was to reduce the suffering of himself and others.
To me and many others, reducing the suffering of others makes life meaningful.
Doing so can also create suffering for yourself, but your own suffering is not the point. Helping others is the point. If you can help others with less suffering for yourself, go ahead. No shame in getting the epidural!
Of course, in many cases short-term suffering is necessary for long-term wellbeing. We don't want to get too soft. But wellbeing is still a good goal. Let's keep going in that direction.
Wonderful piece. I think you would find both C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Abolition of Man, and more recently, Why We Are Restless by Ben and Jenna Storrey, to be deeply related to this topic. And congratulation on a second child!
I’m grateful for the teachings of my parents and religion that taught me to find purpose in adversity.