We romanticize suffering because we know the weight of looking at it honestly will crush us. It’s why we have best-selling books about the London Blitz whilst barely taking in the sight of the dusty 3-year-old Syrian toddler covered in blood and dust. Eyes close to reality, lids pulled down by the gravity of the pain.
Is art a form of resistance to suffering, and if so, what an epic failure that is. What has art ever done to stop the onslaught of pain? When you are staring at the train bearing down on you, what does it matter if jazz is playing in the background? Whose life is saved, besides the player? Is he so important that it’s worth all of that trouble?
What is Van Gogh without his internal suffering and his external oppressors, and was his pain worth all the wheat fields in France? Who would reverse 150 years of social policy to keep the Reconstruction going if it meant give up James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and the freedom they give white people to sound woke? If the world guaranteed a thousand Louis Armstrongs for a million unjust laws, vagrancy and otherwise, then would not constitutions be written to make it so? We need the walking wounded among us, the dust-covered and rejected, the torn-apart families in airports and arrogant presidents and judges with spines so we have something to align ourselves with. So we have something to separate ourselves from.
History creates calluses and rather than slough them off so we can still feel those on which we trample, we relish in our oblivion to pain. Our back strains as we pat ourselves on it for our feigned concern at toddlers dead on beaches, even as our feet carry us to the voting booths where we ensure they will stay there, silent on their beaches and in their boats, our hands washed clean as we silence the Pilate’s wives among us who warn us in our social media feeds. The unfollow button has never seemed so damning in its use.
We pride ourselves on resistance but we confidently forget we don’t resist until our suffering, real or imagined, is on the line. The U.S. stayed calm while London burned and stays while Aleppo crumbles, but let Assad drop a grain of sand on our shore, then let loose the dogs of war and take all the glory for saving the world, yet again, from the tyranny of our own making.
We scream because Iranians are detained in green rooms even as we ignore that if we too had gone into Border Security as a career, we would be performing the role of the everyday American Nazi. So no one should go into border security or law enforcement as a career, we might say, but then who would secure the border and who would make us feel safe, we would also say. Someone must, because deep down we know that our way of life is predicated on the exclusion of others. Our illusion of security rests on the back of the suffering, and no amount of protests can make that not so.
If we wanted everyone to come, if we wanted no one to be shot by police, that would mean accepting the risk of our death, and who would choose that way of suffering? Only those bound for the small and narrow gate, I imagine.
The suffering of others is tragic and now a generation of Americans feels smug in their anger, empowered by the collective resistance that arises from it, but how many will enter the arena to actually stop it? Politicians win seats because they are torture victims, while obtusely turning around and voting to torture more victims through as many legal means as possible. It isn’t actually torture that we’re against; it’s the obvert forms of it that appall us so. We force ourselves to cover suffering with a layer of music, as if it were Moses’ face, veiled, convincing ourselves that we’re incapable of seeing the truth of it, stunned simply by virtue of being witness to it. But we forget that the glory faded and the veil remained, and we too can find the strength required to see what our hands have wrought.
The dead are heavier than the living, so the earth must somehow stiffen its axis to hold the weight, and as new art fills the air, let history not forget to record how the privileged used their voice to complain there were not enough images of kittens on their social media feeds.
No one is disturbed enough to stop more suffering from occurring, because we view it as inevitable, so what does it matter if it is chemical warfare or landmines or a nuclear war or no more Chinese imports because the world was made for suffering, damn it, and so you will suffer. You will suffer and you will enjoy it, because the world is beautiful and tragic and if you can’t find the beauty than the problem lies within you. But what if the problem isn’t the one who despairs, but the one who fails to imagine a world without suffering is possible?
And maybe that’s what the best artists among us do. They imagine a world better than the one handed to them and ask us to create it for everyone else, so that yes, they suffered, but please god will you promise as you read my book, see my painting, and hear my music, will you promise that the suffering wasn’t in vain?
And we will do our duty as the decent human beings we believe ourselves to be, facts be damned. We promise Never Again, and like an abuser on a good day, we really mean it this time, we swear. Never again, cross my heart, hope to die.
But as everyone knows, humans are notorious liars, so bad at living up to our best ideals. Needless to say, it does happen again and again, and maybe it always will. The story of humanity is not told art by glorious art, but by failure on failure in the pursuit of justice and mercy. Look how we build statues to the memories of those who scorned humility and love. Spin the globe and see where your finger stops, and spin again and again and see how the pain goes on because what is life without suffering?
Are there variations of suffering? Do the circles of hell exist and are they alive now? Is the pain of a lonely Dutch artist different than being black in America, or being a Londoner in 1940 than a Syrian in 2017? Is art gilded by the force of the pain? When Oscar-winning films are made in 20 years depicting refugees on boats, will the awards come because the quality of the art or to assuage the guilt of the cowardly complicit?
Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and musicians played while the Titanic sank, but one was a disaster and one was tragedy and who can tell which is which, and which victims do you mourn for more? Is there a historical time limit on grief? Does Alexander Hamilton feel footsteps near his grave? Does he feel the tears and wonder where everyone has been for 200 years? The further removed in time one is from a loss, the less it means, even though it has always meant so much. Perhaps this is the work of art, to keep memory alive, to fan the flames of grief so that we never again sail a ship whilst tempting God.
Maybe we romanticize pain to make freedom and humanity seem worth fighting for. Because it is so slow in coming and because even personal growth takes decades, we need something inspiring to think about. We need idealism to follow after because the tangibles are so few and far between and arrive coated in dirt and tears.
What is there for me to fight for if it’s not a world more beautiful and hopeful than the one I inhabit? One in which dreams aren’t held back, imaginations aren’t stifled, and personality deficiencies can’t be traced back to abuse. I need the darkened church windows of Starry Night to give me hope because even though Van Gogh died and toddlers suffer and cities burn, I know that I am not alone in looking for the essence of truth. In the end, I welcome both the honest pain and glorified suffering because what redemption hasn’t already arrived broken and poured out for you?