Lorem Ipsum Dolor

Anyone who spends much time writing things is probably familiar with the universal “dummy text” that begins Lorem ipsum dolor. Supposedly, typesetters in the 16th century used this scrambled Latin text to mock up books and show off designs. Lorem ipsum dolor now means something like, “don’t read the text; that will change when we have something better to say. Just look at the beautiful design. Oh, and also, something about pain.”

The dolor is the giveaway about the pain. Something like it means “pain” in enough languages that even most English speakers will get the reference. The rest of it is harder, since it is not good Latin. It is more like Sort-of Latin. It actually comes from a mangled passage in Cicero’s On the Extremes of Good and Evil, that says Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor, which means “There is nobody who loves pain itself because it is pain.” The whole passage is worth quoting and pondering deeply:

No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. . . . In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. 

That’s it. That’s the whole point of the great master: all things being equal, pleasure is good and pain is bad. We should enjoy pleasure and reject pain whenever possible. Pain is painful and pleasure is pleasurable. If it makes you miserable, don’t do it. It seems obvious, but Cicero was writing in a philosophical environment full of Stoics and Cynics and general tough guys who saw pleasure as morally suspect and pain as the sort of thing that real men embraced.

Cicero’s big takeaway–that pain is bad and pleasure is good–seems so self-evident that there would be no point in writing a book about it. But, really, it isn’t self-evident at all. Cicero was wrong about that. All kinds of people court misery for its own sake and reject pleasure because they see it as inherently tainted. Usually they think that this has something to do with religion. Human beings are messed up that way. Or, at least, some of them are.

I know because I’ve been messed up that way. I have actively sought out pain and pushed away pleasure for reasons that I once confused with religion. Throughout most of my 20s, I thought that being happy and enjoying things was sinful and that profound psychic pain–pain centered largely around guilt and anxiety–was a sign of my special status with God. I was miserable most of the time, and, somehow, this made me happy. Some people, you know, just can’t be happy unless they aren’t happy.

I don’t want to get into the details; I’m not ready for my closeup yet. But I do want to bear my testimony that Cicero is true, that being miserable really isn’t a sign of righteousness, and being happy really isn’t evidence of a broken soul. We can do all sorts of tradeoffs. We can look at lesser pains and greater pleasures and greatest goods for greatest numbers. We can examine how some short-term pain can produce long-term pleasure, or how one person’s willingness to endure pain can produce enduring pleasure for the many. It is a complicated moral calculus. But we need to start, I think, from the governing postulate that pain is bad and pleasure is good.

This does not mean that everything pleasurable should be pursued with abandon. Cicero was a long way from a hedonist, and, in fact, is arguing against the Epicureans in this very passage. He makes it clear that it would be foolish to pursue every pleasure, and avoid every pain, that we encounter in our lives. To do so would produce long-term pain and achieve only fleeting pleasure. We have to look to the future.

But we don’t have to look so far in the future that we ignore the life that we have to focus a life that we imagine. The purpose of life is not to be unhappy the whole time we are here so we can qualify for happiness in some future life. I’ve never actually seen a pig in a poke, but I’m pretty sure that this is one. I simply don’t understand enough about any life other than this one to make any such plans, and I am not convinced that anybody else does either.

Pleasure and pain occur in this life, and they translate pretty reliably into happiness and misery. And while there are certainly things that decent people should be willing to sacrifice pleasure and happiness for, setting out to try to be miserable is really pretty stupid. Pain should never be the point.

And none of this means that we are ever going to excise pain and suffering from the world. Both the Buddha and The Princess Bride got this right. Life really is suffering, and anyone who says differently is probably selling something. But it does not follow that pain is the point of life. Pain is never the point. As necessary, or ennobling, or inevitable as suffering may be, it is not the reason that we exist, and it is not the reason that anybody else exists either. It is OK to try to avoid it. And it is more than OK to try to help other people avoid it. Being happy is acceptable to God.

This has become the essence of my adult religious faith: I refuse to believe that pain is the point of life. I insist on seeing it, rather, as placeholder text–a sort of spiritual lorem ipsum dolor that keeps the shape of the soul and helps show off the design–but that can, and should eventually be replaced with things that makes more sense. In identifying these things, I can do no better than the vision invoked by the great American Jurist, Learned Hand, of a consciousness that “remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded” and acknowledges “the spirit of Him who, nearly two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

Comments

  1. My father used to say, “The world is not a fair place. It’s just a place.” I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger, but it’s really a lot easier when you finally accept that that’s the reality of life, whether we like it or not. Easier because you stop wasting energy complaining about things you have no control over (and often just can’t be helped, period). I’ve been trying to convince my daughter that happiness is possible even though life is filled with stuff we don’t like and don’t want to deal with. Parenthood was probably my greatest teacher in that regard, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everyone.

  2. Beautiful. Thanks.

  3. For the last few months I’ve been in chronic pain. I needed this today. Thank you.

  4. ” pain as the sort of thing that ream men embraced.”

    Is “ream men” a typo, or is it not a typo? It’s impossible to tell!

  5. Michael Austin says:

    Yep. Typo. Fixed it.

  6. I think our five senses are intricately wired to steer us toward pleasure and away from pain. I take this as a clue.

    The paragraph about a pig in a poke was my favorite. It gave me a pleasurable giggle. Thank you. Pleasure is something we can joyfully share. Pain, not so much.

  7. If pain is not the point, then would you say neither is pleasure? I think that dichotomy is wrong in where it focuses our attention. Focusing on pleasure and pain misses the point — finding meaning through stewardship (responsibility).

    When your focus shifts to responsibility of stewardship your understanding of the role pain and pleasure expands. Christ’s stewardship brought pain. Did it bring more pain than pleasure? From one point of view, I think we’d have to say ya, it did — but when the net effect on humanity is considered, I think the scales are altered. How many lives will be saved as a result of that pain? Lives without end.

    Consider the pain of childbirth and sacrifices of raising a child. Focusing on pleasure and pain or suffering, etc. someone what misses the point if we first don’t have an understanding of responsibility across generations. How many lives can be created as a result of the birth of that child — also without end.

  8. Interesting post. You say it’s really not about hoping for a future happy life free of pain in some sense and where the meaning of it all will come together. But then that’s exactly what I get out of this: “I refuse to believe that pain is the point of life. I insist on seeing it, rather, as placeholder text–a sort of spiritual lorem ipsum dolor that keeps the shape of the soul and helps show off the design–but that can, and should eventually be replaced with things that makes more sense.” I think that’s what most everyone hopes for.

  9. Michael Austin says:

    Bro. B., I totally agree. I’m just saying that we should look for these things in our current life and not necessarily in an afterlife. Too many people, I think, give up chances at meaning and happiness here in favor of a future life that nobody really understands very much about.

  10. ” Too many people, I think, give up chances at meaning and happiness here in favor of a future life that nobody really understands very much about.”

    Amen.

  11. Where does “be of good cheer” fit? I struggle with it all the time. I had a blessing which said to “find joy in everything”. I believe it was from God. But I don’t know how to do it.

  12. I think that perhaps the point of this life is to learn how to love. Unfortunately, it is almost always impossible to love without some pain being attendant to the process. This is because when some sort of separation of suffering occurs, both of which seem an inevitable consequence of layers of entropy, we experience grief if we have loved. When we see the suffering of those we love, we feel pain. Pain is inseparable from the process, but I joyfully agree it is not the point. A life without love may be less painful, but it also seems less full and less than our purpose. I don’t think we should harbor too long the pain of unnecessary guilt or self-loathing or living to an impossible and reality and dangerous reality because we can imagine some better life later, since eternal life is happening now, it all seamless and woven as one fabric, the eternal life that God lives is unlimited exactly because of the love that God has, and we can start that now, and we can live live circumscribed in an acorn and not exhaust the limitless horizons of patient, and painful love. I think God continues to have pain, because of our suffering, particularly that suffering we choose to inflict on each other. But apparently there is no other way to learn this than to spend part of the illusion called time in this veiled corner of the fabric, where the stakes appear so high, but really boil down to “Love one Another,” the aphorism if truly pursued without regard for polity or tribe would simply dissolve so much of the needless suffering of this world. It has to grow in darkness, because if it were clear it would not be love, it would be programming. Michael, your piece calls to my mind a poem I have seen recently by the incommprable Amaya Engelking… here it is.

    https://gospelisosceles.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/sun-screens/

    And my own lesser offering here:

    https://lonagynt.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/btt-61-this-is-not-a-puzzle/

    Thank you for this my friend. Lona

  13. GEOFF -AUS says:

    I believe we are here to have joy. I have joy in the love I recieve and send, and also in creating things, and financial security.
    I believe most of the pain/trials in our lives is the natural consequences of previous decisions. There are exceptions, like medical events, but they are just life and have to be dealt with. I live with universal health care so medical events are not also financial events.
    Gratitude is a great part of joy. I am regularly telling my wife how wonderfull the life we have created together is. Life is good.
    Being 70 healthy and retired helps.

  14. “Men (and women) are that they might have joy.” I assume that this is a statement of fact. Lately I read (or heard) a piece where the author stated that both a recent paraplegic and a recent million dollar lottery winner have the same thing in common: that in six months they will both return to their pre-incident state of satisfaction. We seem to have an interior set point of this joy or satisfaction that is very difficult to change.

    So I maintain that we, each, need to try to enlarge our set points of joy or satisfaction. It is a work of a lifetime. This quantity is independent of pleasure and pain, generally, but is usually a prerequisite for generalized pleasure in life.

    So I have taken this as a challenge: when I am not feeling joy or satisfaction, I assume that some internal state needs adjusting. I try to find the imbalance and restore the equilibrium. This is not to say that I have not had severe reversals in life. I assume that life can be suffering, as the Buddhists maintain, but how I react to it is under my control. To be sure I have not had severe chronic pain, unless you count a knee replacement as one. I have lost a beloved spouse, and had adult children problems. I have been laid off under unfair and trying circumstances. I grew up in a reasonably disfunctional home. I should have been famous but am not ;))

    But I have been hugely blessed. I would not trade this life for another. I have joy and satisfaction of a life well lived. I have perception and reasonable control. Is this pleasure? (Sorry to be so boastful…. But this is more or less anonymous?)

  15. Oh BobW, I could just hug you, That is such a brimmingly Mormon response, I say that affectionately, without sarcasm. I see the hand of agency applied also to the interior, the modulation of an interior set point, this is potentially a beautiful act, but if applied too stringently can unravel into a grasping scrupulosity. We have to be so careful about how we act in the presence of others, must we now also modulate our relationship with ourselves to the point that we must now feel bad about feeling bad? This might be another entry point for the needless pain that Michael mentions in the OP. Lehi’s Proclamation of why we are here is a statement of potentiality, not of fact. Joy will not be foisted on you, but sometimes an angel, or even more potently- the Spirit- may be sent to comfort you when your friends are too weary to do so. I would posit that a person who has lost a child to disease, or legs to a tractor, or the fellowship of their congregation because they are transgender (I have a friend who I fear is teetering on suicide right now because of that last one and I cannot reach her), can be told to adjust their set point so they feel like a million bucks. But we can try to hold them in our arms. I think that Jacob, who heard in person what Lehi said about why Adam fell, knew this. Jacob 7:26

  16. But I also see the suffering you have had in your experiences, and applaud the faith inherent in your perspective

  17. Once I was overseeing a small research budget. One of the men doing research for me had a professional life of unexcelled wonder. I read, just recently, that he had got a Presidential Medal for some sort of his “contribution” I knew the man well enough to know that he was an extremely good self promoter, whereas I was “the real thing” but lousy at that central task of a career. I became extremely jealous of him. I was torn up inside and miserable.

    At one point I went for a long walk, feeling just awful. At one point I realized that I had entered a disembodied state of “jealousy” and needed no object for its existence. I stood by and wondered and determined to hold that feeling in my mind. It lasted for nearly a half an hour.

    I cannot say that I am over jealousy, but since that incident I am largely cured. I cannot explain it, but I, somehow, adjusted my view and set point. When I saw, 25 years later, that he had got the Presidential Medal, I almost laughed. I was not jealous.

    I am sensitive that I am adept at this task. I am aware that there are people with corrosive depression, for example. I do not know exactly what to say except that I am most heartfelt sorry. My thought is that if it is possible to find the underlying controls then change may be possible. As I said, I seem to be adept at this. If I could run a 2 hour marathon I would still wish everyone could.

  18. Well, I have to say, now I am jealous of you Bob… (just kidding- happy for you actually). Fun fact… I can actually do a marathon pretty fast, and do I one almost daily, but I must admit I use my car. 🙂

  19. The OP is personal and revealing and I value that. But my Michael Austin fanboy exclamations can go private.

    I’m thinking about generalization to Mormon experience. I don’t see a lot of hair shirts. Certainly there are individuals seeking pain as a sign of righteousness or as a form of restitution. But it doesn’t feel like a cultural norm. On the other hand, accepting–putting up with pain, enduring to the end, hoping that all will be made right in the eternities–does seem cultural and common. We talk about this life as a test. I hear “fake it till you make it.” We spend more time forgiving those who hurt us than putting them in jail. A fairly strong turn toward Pelagian salvation earning contributes toward seeing suffering as a good.

    At the same time, pleasure seeking is not a Mormon thing either. There’s just too much forbidden fruit flavor to the word “pleasure.” But reframed as seeking satisfaction or peace or love or joy, it does become a part of our common vocabulary. And then the issue is this life or next.

    So what I appreciate most about the OP is the emphasis on this life. I am a “kingdom come, here and now” kind of believer.

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