In the book ‘Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind’, (which I highly recommend) the author Yuval Noah Harari maintains that human suffering is a relative experience. That is, the unhappy person living in the West in the twenty first century cannot find solace in their comforts when they compare their condition to that of say, a 12th century peasant. Unhappiness is unhappiness he writes, and it must be felt for what it is.
I think this is unfortunate, but true. Wouldn’t it be nice to read about the poor digestion, rotten teeth, bad hygiene, dirty water and deadly diseases of your fellow humans 900 years ago and feel better about your dull job, nagging cold or traffic congestion? Then again, perhaps it is a bit odd that we could profit from others’ suffering, no matter how long ago it occurred. If you are of my generation we certainly heard about the starving in Africa when we wouldn’t eat our Lima beans. But the idea that we can’t suffer less because we know others have suffered more seems rooted in reality.
Perseverance then, must come from within. But maybe that is how we can learn the history lesson. Knowing what people have endured in the past can help give us the strength to do the same. This doesn’t diminish either experience and it may allow us some perspective on the relative discomforts of a not so serious knee injury we will recover from, versus the grinding reality of a life of near starvation and manual labour in the developing world. A big leap but maybe a necessary one.
And some of my prose from a short story I wrote last year. Hope you enjoy it.
He had to forget the cost that was handed to him every day in lists printed on sheets of paper. Every name a son, father, brother, friend. The general wasn’t stupid. He had fought. He knew that every advance he planned, every line of wax pencil on a map wrapped in plastic resulted in pain and despair. Inhumanity was what the general employed to achieve his purpose, like a painter’s brush or a welder’s torch. Except analogies like these were like dirt in his mind. War was self-referential; it wasn’t like anything except itself. The general knew its rules and they had to be followed, if victory over these ruthless men was to be gained. And the front was where the unrelenting calculations in his mind changed the lives of individual men, his and theirs. The general was the cause of their hunger, fear, suffering and pain. He was the war personified. No matter how many of them died or were horribly gutted, mashed or mangled he would still be issuing orders and organizing replacements the next day. The general would ensure that it would go on