On Wanting to Protect Others from Suffering
I caught myself the other day, composing a birthday post to a friend on Facebook, about to write “I wish you all good things.” I stopped in my tracks, thinking “is that really what I would wish for them?”
While part of me certainly doesn’t want my friends and family to encounter hardships or to be unhappy, another part of me wouldn’t want to take that way from them, either.
Grappling with challenges is fundamental to our growth and evolution as people. To protect those close to us from those struggles or to wish it away would be to confine them to a life of mediocrity and inertia.
When we undertake a new skill or project, we are bound to make mistakes and have disappointments as we learn, little by little, a new territory. To avoid the experience of falling down, we must never venture to walk. Mastery will always be out of reach unless we risk failure.
Through wrestling with difficult experiences we learn what we are capable of handling — and in some cases we expand our capacity for resilience. Author and mythologist Michael Meade says that when we come through a crisis in our lives, we have the choice to grow bigger or shrink smaller as people. Without these tests of fortitude we have no opportunity to become bigger people.
I recently stumbled on this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, who ventured to take this idea a step further — not just releasing the desire to protect others from challenges, but actively wishing it for them:
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”
Alain be Botton writes about Nietzsche’s stance in his book, Consolations of Philosophy:
“Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.”
I confess I still find it hard to watch friends make choices in their lives that I predict will lead to misery. And harder still to watch it in the children who are dear to me. Yet, I also would not want for them a watered-down existence of perpetual comfort with no growth.
I find some consolation in this idea, given that we can’t actually protect ourselves or anyone else from hard times. The friend who would choose the path I see as leading to certain disaster would not likely be talked out of it, even if I tried, just as I would not have been talked out of my own foolish undertakings.
History has also shown me that the decisions I judged to be perilous in others’ lives have at times worked out for them. In fact, my prophetic skills in this area have not always been accurate, so who am I to try to persuade them this way or that?
So if I wish you happy birthday on Facebook, I won’t be wishing you “all good things,” because I want much more for you than that. I wish you all the depth and richness that life has to offer, including those experiences that help us to develop into our fullest capacity.
I leave you with this poem from Rilke…
By Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.