Higher Education (2014Oct17)


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Friday, October 17, 2014              10:44 AM

An online Facebook-meme mentioned Pain and Rose Kennedy yesterday and, shooting from the hip, I commented, ‘Pain is the Teacher—and I fear poor Rose was over-educated’. A freshet of comments debating the point followed. I was tempted to add a second comment but, as I thought on it, I realized it would be rather lengthy—and here we are:

Pain teaches us lessons which we can never share. Those whose lives are mercifully light in such lessons enjoy an ignorance that is not to be despised. Such lucky folks see the world in a brighter light. We who have experienced pain are forever adjusted to see the world as a place where pain is a constant. The more we suffer, the more prepared we are for more suffering—it doesn’t surprise us and it doesn’t destroy our existing perspective on life.

Young people, simply due to the time factor, are ordinarily ignorant of the sudden changes that loss can bring—and the few who receive an early education find themselves lost among their peers, stripped of the bottomless optimism of youth. Old people, by the same notion, are almost unanimous in their expectation of worse times to come—and the optimistic oldster is a rare find.

Pain is random—it can average out, over large groups, over time—but it strikes here and there, willy-nilly. Pain comes in a variety of flavors—loss due to death, loss due to absence, loss of health or limb or sense, the pain of wounds and insults, existential pain, loneliness, anger, despair—and it can have a wide spectrum of intensity, from annoyance to overwhelming grief.

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Our adventures in pain grant us a depth of character—our extrapolations are broadened beyond ‘wishful thinking’, our precautions stretched to include the ‘probably not’. We foresee potential pitfalls with a clarity that can mystify the more rose-colored-sighted. We ride out the surf and chop of Fate’s dice-game with equanimity of expectation—and in so doing, we often avoid risks that appear vanishingly small to the less pain-evolved, making us appear dull, even cowardly.

The challenges of youth often require a madness of bravado to overcome—the winning of a mate, the starting of a career, the invention of something new—such youthful pursuits often mandate a blindness to caution that takes a parent’s breath away. And many of the good die young—statistically, anyway. The late teens and young adulthood both have a terrific death rate—and that rate drops to almost nothing (relatively) for those who make it through to full adulthood and middle-age—we don’t start dying again until old age. Thus we see that an early education in Pain can cripple the developmental course of a child—they need that heedlessness to puncture the seal of adulthood and find a place among the independently-living. That some will die in the attempt is simply the cost of doing business, if you will.

By the same token, adults who lack the normal familiarity with struggle and loss are often dismissed as immature. These lucky people have lives of surprising peace, and peace of mind—but their judgment cannot be trusted with regard to the big, bad world of adulthood. They can still be caught unaware by troubles the rest of us have long been familiar with—making them dangerous people to have in charge of adult responsibilities.

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So Pain divides us—not in twain, but into two spectra. Our experiences, particularly our unpleasant experiences, give us a perspective on what we falsely assume are absolutes—good and bad, progressiveness and conservatism, risk and safety—even life and death. Death, especially. Our lives are line segments, with the two end-points of birth and death. Our exposure to pain dictates how easily we overlook this simple fact. Life can be lived without any thought of death—but pain solidifies death in our minds, making it more real with every loss.

Those of us who know this would never want to teach it to those who don’t. Ignorance of pain is a blessing—no one wants to tell the kids the truth about Santa Claus. And those who do not know pain’s lessons can never learn them second-hand—so it would be a waste of time to try.

As an atheist, I see this more than I used to. An atheist’s first impulse is to share ‘enlightenment’ with those who are ‘deluded’ by faith—but faith is a valuable mind-set, keeping believers happy, hopeful and secure. What point is there to destroying that? I save my atheist rantings for those who have been hurt by faith, or those whom faith has failed to succor—they actually need an alternative. The rest I leave alone—it’s not my job to make the world see things my way—particularly at the expense of others’ happiness.

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