Sunday, March 6, 2016

From Suffering to Boredom

Zadie Smith is an interesting writer. In the recent (March 10) issue of the New York Review of Books, she comments on the film "Anomalisa," using Schopenhauer to suggest how we seek pleasure as a release from suffering, only to find a vicious cycle of restless desire and boredom.

Of course, these are enormous topics, which she is only able to touch on. The examples from the film, which I have not seen and may never see, are revealing: room service in a luxury hotel offers pleasures people hardly know they want, like chocolates on their king-size beds and carefully chosen artisan water. I remember a New York City hotel offering five types of pillows (they had a pillow concierge), leaving no possible area of comfort unaccounted for.

Except, of course, that, as the old song says, "After you get what you want, you don't want it." Schopenhauer wrote that desiring lasts a long time, but "demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. . .the wish fulfilled at once makes room for a new one."

He went on to theorize that we humans deliberately intensify our needs so as to intensify our pleasure, all of which leads to a kind of boredom, something he says animals do not experience, whereas for us, "want and boredom are the twin poles of human life."

As soon as the luxury hotel supplies the film's characters with some delight, apparently, they are bored: hotels exist to meet and fulfill all our needs and desires, and fulfilling the desire itself leads necessarily to disillusionment.

Of course, these desires are not spiritual, even though the movie's characters are told that they are incomplete as individuals: we are all one in some vaguely Eastern transcendental sense. But, says Smith, the characters cannot accept this, or the lesson of compassion. And she doesn't develop this point, which is all-important. It relates to what I would call the mystical dimension of religion, which offers an escape from suffering more reliable than pleasure and desire.

This point has been made beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2008 book, Things Hidden, being excerpted now in daily email installments from his Center for Action and Contemplation.  I sum up his lengthy comments in a  few basic points about moving from the self to the Other:

  1. If we cannot find some deeper meaning in our suffering, to "find that God is somehow in it" (in the Christian sense), if we don't see that there is some good, some purpose in our suffering, we are doomed to become shut down emotionally (spiritually) and to pass along to the next generation our bitterness and negativity.

 2.  Mature religion deals with transforming the individual (and history) into a meaningful  pattern that involves love. We see our connectedness to others; we make our contribution to the world's suffering by "participating in the Great Sadness of God."  Rohr, following St. Paul, is referencing the idea of Christ as the Suffering Servant and the role that believers play "in Christ," in the universal drama that leads from pain and suffering to transformation.
This brings us, of course, far from what Zadie Smith, using Schopenhauer, is saying about the film she analyzes; but it shows, for me at least, the extra dimension we need if we are to move beyond the endless cycle of desire and boredom as escapes from suffering--if indeed that's what pleasure is all about.

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