Why do good peo­ple suf­fer? You asked Google – here’s the an­swer

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Eleanor Mor­gan

Why do good peo­ple suf­fer? Five words to take you into a dense maze of ideas philo­soph­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal. Where to start? What suf­fer­ing looks or feels like is prob­a­bly one of the most sub­jec­tive no­tions we can pon­der. Even the way we usu­ally cat­e­gorise suf­fer­ing – “phys­i­cal” or “men­tal” – is blurry, be­cause rarely does one come with­out the other. Our minds hurt when our bod­ies hurt, and vice versa.

If we put aside the “good” or “bad” rank­ing – for now – and ask why any per­son suf­fers, we can start at the be­gin­ning: when our body, pulled apart from the one we grew in­side, is sus­pended in the world on its own for the first time. Birth.

In the book The Trauma of Birth (1924), the psy­cho­an­a­lyst Otto Rank – one of Freud’s clos­est col­leagues – wrote that all hu­man be­ings suf­fer trauma by virtue of be­ing born. Ex­pand­ing on Freud’s the­o­ries from the be­gin­ning of the 1900s, when he fa­mously called birth “the first ex­pe­ri­ence of anx­i­ety, and thus the source and pro­to­type of the af­fect of anx­i­ety”, Rank be­lieved the phys­i­cal event of be­ing born to be not only the first anx­i­ety a per­son knows, but also the blue­print of all anx­i­ety ex­pe­ri­enced over the arc of their life.

Be­ing thrust from a state of per­fect, warm union with our mother into a cold, dis­tress­ing state of sep­a­ra­tion does seem like a rough start to this liv­ing busi­ness. Psy­cho­an­a­lysts are fas­ci­nated with birth trauma and what psy­cho­log­i­cal im­print­ing oc­curs when there are com­pli­ca­tions. I was born with my um­bil­i­cal cord con­strict­ing my neck, boa­like (ac­cord­ing to my mum, my face was “the colour of Ribena”), and have a de­cid­edly anx­ious con­sti­tu­tion. A psy­cho­an­a­lytic ther­a­pist I saw for a while seemed fix­ated on the syn­onymity of th­ese two facts.

It is as easy to have a knee-jerk aver­sion to de­ter­min­ist ideas (“I am not born to suf­fer! I have con­trol over my des­tiny!”) as it is to get stuck in them (“My par­ents screwed me up for ever!”), be­cause that’s less fright­en­ing than really ex­am­in­ing our­selves. But if trauma is an in­escapable fact of our early lives, then re­search has shown that many vari­ables can in­flu­ence our in­di­vid­ual lev­els of suf­fer­ing later on.

The Bri­tish psy­cho­an­a­lyst Wil­fred Bion be­lieved that the birth ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther re­mains dis­tress­ing or be­comes psy­cho­log­i­cally man­age­able, de­pend­ing on the level of at­tach­ment to our mother. We don’t just need phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion, he said, we need our moth­ers to “con­tain” our ear­li­est emo­tional states – the wild sen­sory im­pres­sions given to the mind be­fore ac­tual think­ing and con­text-giv­ing can hap­pen. We need to feel our trauma is sur­viv­able. Bion be­lieved this hap­pens when our early feel­ings are taken in and “named” by the mother and, there­fore, can then be lim­ited or solved. With se­cure at­tach­ment, we can know what dis­tress feels like – even if that dis­tress is com­ing from some­thing as in­nocu­ous as trapped wind – but also that love and sup­port can help us feel bet­ter. We learn what it means to man­age our suf­fer­ing.

As adults, some of us seem to cope and co-ex­ist with suf­fer­ing. Some of us find it more dif­fi­cult. The im­por­tance of early se­cure at­tach­ment on our emo­tional re­silience later in life is now widely ac­cepted in psy­chol­ogy and, af­ter decades of min­imis­ing the ef­fects of neg­a­tive events in child­hood, re­searchers have es­tab­lished that a broad range of ad­verse child­hood events are sig­nif­i­cant risk fac­tors for most men­tal health prob­lems.

The Ad­verse Child­hood Ex­pe­ri­ences stud­ies show that child­hood trauma and ne­glect man­i­fest not just in men­tal dis­tress but as chronic in­flam­ma­tion and com­pro­mised im­mune re­sponses in the body. Our bod­ies hurt when our minds hurt. If we think about the phe­nomeno­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of phys­i­cal pain, it can drill a black hole into our emo­tional life. Peo­ple liv­ing with chronic pain are suf­fer­ing not only with the phys­i­cal as­pects of that pain, but also with the loss of iden­tity that comes with be­ing de­tached from things that brought mean­ing to their life. In a re­cent clin­i­cal place­ment within a chronic pain ser­vice, I met peo­ple who said that the monotony en­forced on their lives by pain was the worst as­pect of their suf­fer­ing.

As to the great why of suf­fer­ing, psy­chol­o­gist Jay Watts wrote in the Guardian ear­lier this year about how psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial fac­tors are, for many of us, the main cause. “Poverty, rel­a­tive in­equal­ity, be­ing sub­ject to racism, sex­ism, dis­place­ment and a com­pet­i­tive cul­ture all in­crease the like­li­hood of men­tal suf­fer­ing,” she says. The as­so­ci­a­tions are pow­er­ful, un­like the cur­rent political ap­petite to lis­ten to men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als’ views on the im­pact of struc­tural in­equal­i­ties. “Add into the mix in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences such as child­hood sex­ual abuse, early sep­a­ra­tion, emo­tional ne­glect, chronic in­val­i­da­tion and bul­ly­ing, and we get a clearer pic­ture of why some peo­ple suf­fer more than oth­ers.”

It seems safe to ar­gue that all hu­man be­ings suf­fer in their in­di­vid­ual way. There are even “anti­na­tal­ist” philoso­phers, such as David Be­natar, who be­lieve that, be­cause life is so bloody painful, no one should ever have kids again. We don’t make things any eas­ier for our­selves by stick­ing “good” or “bad” la­bels on to peo­ple, ei­ther. What makes a per­son good or bad? If we branch from this fun­da­men­tal ques­tion, we must then ask: do “bad” peo­ple not suf­fer? Do they de­serve to? Do good peo­ple, by virtue of the good things they do, not de­serve to? If there is a moral hi­er­ar­chy of suf­fer­ing, who de­cides its lev­els?

To an ex­tent, crim­i­nal law pro­vides such a hi­er­ar­chy. When analysing “bad” hu­man be­hav­iour – for the sake of ar­gu­ment let’s say that which causes gra­tu­itous suf­fer­ing to an­other per­son – the “mad, sad or bad?” ques­tion is of­ten posed in the field of crim­i­nal psy­chol­ogy. To what end a killer’s pathol­ogy – a florid psy­chotic episode as a re­sult of an un­treated men­tal health is­sue, say – should af­fect their pun­ish­ment (and en­forced suf­fer­ing) is a con­sid­er­a­tion that runs through jus­tice sys­tems across the word. The Net­flix drama Mind­hunter, based on the true story of the man who pi­o­neered the pro­fil­ing of se­rial killers, pro­vides an en­ter­tain­ing in­sight into the con­ver­gence of be­havioural sci­ence and crim­i­nal­ity. As the se­ries shows, those in­flict­ing grave suf­fer­ing in their adult lives have of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced child­hood trauma. There is data to sup­port the vic­tim-to-vic­timiser cy­cle of sex­ual abuse. Do the per­pe­tra­tors of such crimes de­serve some kind of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, then, or do they de­serve to suf­fer? Do they, as hu­man be­ings, de­serve a de­cent ex­is­tence as their days play out?

Death penalty states say no: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex­o­dus 21:24). Coun­tries such as Nor­way, with its pris­ons fo­cus­ing on hu­man­ity, say yes (and also hap­pen to have some of the low­est re-of­fend­ing rates in Europe). Whether we can change peo­ple – and there­fore limit fur­ther un­nec­es­sary hu­man suf­fer­ing in so­ci­ety – by power is an on­go­ing de­bate. There is no greater act of power than one hu­man be­ing end­ing an­other’s life. For some vic­tims of crime, their suf­fer­ing may be less­ened by a per­pe­tra­tor’s death. For oth­ers, a sense of jus­tice – and there­fore a re­duc­tion in suf­fer­ing – comes from an of­fender be­ing in pri­son and los­ing their free­dom. In mod­ern neu­ro­science, the con­cept of “evil” is a bit old-hat. Within the brain’s lim­bic sys­tem is an al­mond-shaped clus­ter of nu­clei in­volved in pro­cess­ing our fears and plea­sures. In fMRI scans (mea­sur­ing brain ac­tiv­ity by changes as­so­ci­ated with blood flow), mur­der­ers and other vi­o­lent crim­i­nals have been shown to have amyg­dalae that aren’t func­tion­ing prop­erly. A re­cent study found that those with mark­ers of “lim­bic neu­ral malde­vel­op­ment” have “sig­nif­i­cantly higher lev­els of an­tiso­cial per­son­al­ity, psy­chopa­thy, ar­rests and con­vic­tions com­pared with con­trols”.

In re­mov­ing free will or con­scious choice, can we really say that those who com­mit such grave acts of cru­elty are vic­tims of their own faulty wiring? Such brain-based roots of “evil” could lead to test­ing for pre­dis­po­si­tions to cer­tain be­hav­iours. A 2010 study sug­gested that amyg­dala dys­func­tion in chil­dren as young as three could cause im­paired re­sponses to fear that pre­cede crim­i­nal­ity in adult­hood. How­ever, im­ple­ment­ing such test­ing in any kind of wide­spread way would be an eth­i­cal mine­field.

If we are ask­ing why “good” peo­ple suf­fer, the im­pli­ca­tion, really, is that suf­fer­ing should be re­served for the “bad”. When we talk about “good” peo­ple, we tend to lean to­wards a per­son’s level of em­pa­thy – how they un­der­stand and act on the wel­fare of oth­ers. The abil­ity to put our­selves in some­one else’s shoes is a cru­cial part of our so­cial de­vel­op­ment. Lack of em­pa­thy was long thought to be a pri­mary trait of psy­chopa­thy, but re­search in the last few years has pointed to­wards the idea of an em­pa­thy “switch” – the abil­ity to turn it on and off. Put a psy­chopath un­der a scan­ner and they may be able to sum­mon an em­pa­thetic re­sponse to or­der. In the real world, just be­cause they can doesn’t mean they will.

When we feel pain we want to make sense of it. We hunt for a cause. The brain wants to find rea­sons be­cause cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance is so un­com­fort­able. But really, there is no such thing as a “good” per­son who is al­ways re­warded and a “bad” per­son who is al­ways pun­ished. There is no such thing as a hu­man be­ing who has never suf­fered. The rup­tur­ing of th­ese il­lu­sions is, per­haps, what we find so unset­tling.

• Eleanor Mor­gan is the au­thor of Anx­i­ety for Be­gin­ners: A Per­sonal In­ves­ti­ga­tion and is train­ing to be a psy­chol­o­gist

Anti-na­tal­ist philoso­pher David Be­natar be­lieves that, be­cause life is so painful, no one should ever have kids again

‘Otto Rank be­lieved the phys­i­cal event of be­ing born to be not only the first anx­i­ety a per­son knows, but also the blue­print of all anx­i­ety ex­pe­ri­enced over the arc of their life.’ Pho­to­graph: arc­ticflea/Getty Images

‘Net­flix drama Mind­hunter pro­vides an en­ter­tain­ing in­sight into the con­ver­gence of be­havioural sci­ence and crim­i­nal­ity.’ Pho­to­graph: Patrick Har­bron/ Net­flix

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