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