Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Life Is Suffering

This is the first truth of Buddhism.

Many people nowadays, living a pampered existence in our wealthy consumer society, seem to have forgotten what our ancestors knew—that we grow and evolve by dealing with adversity, not by avoiding it. We gain strength and wisdom when we confront our difficulties and find ways to learn and benefit from them.

In an age when our everyday activities include browsing among millions of products in shopping malls and on the Internet, it's tempting to think that we can just do the same with the diversity of the human species—pick and choose a few glittering gift-wrapped popular packages, while leaving all the problems and challenges and unfashionable styles on the shelf.

The seductive promise of avoiding suffering is the false foundation on which modern-day eugenics rests. When the Down Syndrome prenatal test first came into use, parents were advised that terminating the pregnancy was the most compassionate choice because DS babies often were born with defects of the heart and other organs and would have a short and painful life. Although today's advanced surgical techniques have made it possible to repair most such defects at birth or shortly thereafter, the medical profession simply takes it for granted that being born with DS equates to preventable suffering. Doctors and genetic counselors never bothered to ask people with DS for their opinion.

We're now living in a world where hundreds of prenatal screening tests are being used for eugenic abortion purposes, and all of them are based on the premise that suffering should be prevented by eliminating genetic differences. The idea seems to be that by declaring a large percentage of the human species eugenically unfit to live, we'll end up with a race of perfect children who never suffer and never cause their parents any difficulties.

Of course, perfection in this context is a moving target. The Down Syndrome population has largely disappeared because of prenatal screening, but the psychologists have constructed new "disorders" such as autism and ADD/ADHD. I don't mean to suggest that these conditions are not real—the labels do indeed refer to identifiable clusters of behavioral traits—but in the past, they weren't pathologized to the extent they are today, and many of the children who are now labeled as "disordered" had ancestors with similar traits who were seen as quirky but normal.

As Dr. Seuss eloquently illustrated in his classic fable of the Star-Bellied Sneetches, any arbitrarily chosen trait can end up being seen as essential to proper social functioning, and the favored traits can change rapidly because society is so fickle.

To put it another way, everybody suffers, not just those who are described as "sufferers." All human beings have their own individual challenges to deal with, as well as their particular strengths, and almost any characteristic can be either a strength or a weakness in different environments. If we aborted every fetus that was ever going to suffer, the human species would promptly become extinct.

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9 Comments:

  • Right on! I have found Buddhist philosophy enormously helpful in positively adjusting my attitude toward life. In fact, "The Dharma of Star Wars" (by Matthew Bortolin, who studied with Thich Nhat Hanh) is sitting beside me right now as I write :) I am also very tired of this societal push for "perfection". How about a push for humanity? (Compassion, understanding...)

    By Blogger Lisa/Jedi, at 12:02 PM  

  • I like to think that these tendencies will be correcting - short dark shy averagely intelligent parents ensure that the produce an intelligent, blond, outgoing offspring with whom they end up having nothing in common. Soon if we all end up being Barbie and Ken clones, life would be frightfully dull.
    I suspect that the current generation of Chinese young men are having a hard time finding any mate at all. So saying two decades is a long time wait for 'self correction' and at too high a 'cost.'
    Cheers

    By Blogger mcewen, at 6:44 PM  

  • Lisa/Jedi: What I find most frightening about today's eugenicists is that they actually believe they're being compassionate and understanding.

    McEwen: It does seem as if we're heading toward a world of Barbie and Ken clones, and although that trend may be self-correcting in the long run, how much diversity will be irretrievably lost in the meanwhile? The North American continent once had great flocks of passenger pigeons and enormous herds of bison. Americans didn't understand that it would be a good idea to protect the environment until the passenger pigeons were extinct and the bison were nearly so.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:28 AM  

  • You're right... we need a serious moratorium on paternalism as well. Maybe it'll die out while on hiatus... (I can only hope).

    By Blogger Lisa/Jedi, at 1:06 PM  

  • Of course, perfection in this context is a moving target. The Down Syndrome population has largely disappeared because of prenatal screening, but the psychologists have constructed new "disorders" such as autism and ADD/ADHD. I don't mean to suggest that these conditions are not real—the labels do indeed refer to identifiable clusters of behavioral traits—but in the past, they weren't pathologized to the extent they are today, and many of the children who are now labeled as "disordered" had ancestors with similar traits who were seen as quirky but normal.

    Hence my lack of diagnosis as a child. I was simply "quirky but normal" until I finally couldn't handle the problems I was having to deal with - what I'd been doing for 28 years never had worked all that well, and I was burning out.

    (I note here that I am no longer taking medication for my ADHD, for various reasons - none of them related to whether or not ADHD meds are a good thing.)

    I was in a seminar about the Enneagram today (work is paying for me to take it, it's got a Christian slant to it and is at the church I work for), and the woman who is teaching the course described Type 9 as being the state of mankind before the fall. And she then went on to describe the traits of Type 9 people.

    Sounded an awful lot like ADHDers.

    (Though I expect I'm a 4.)

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 1:16 AM  

  • Your post is quoted in my blog today at http://algonomy.wordpress.com/

    By Blogger Robert Daoust, at 10:01 PM  

  • Hi ABFH,

    My first reaction to your posting was that it paints an incomplete picture. On the one hand, there's this idea that people with disabilities should be spared of their suffering, even to the extent of sparing them of their existence. But on the other hand, there's this idea that we learn through our suffering, and therefore suffering is good, so it's better to suffer more than others, which leads to the idea of the noble cripple who is wiser than the rest of us. Neither one is true. I was ready to challenge whether the "first noble truth" as referred to in your title was really representative of Buddhist philosophy, since it seemed so incomplete and misleading to me. Upon exploring the link you provided, it's now apparent that Buddhism also includes the idea that suffering is a choice, and that it's unnecessary, which is more in line with what I believe. Also noteworthy, and perhaps even more relevant to the topic at hand, is the Buddhist "Second Noble Truth," which says that "...suffering is caused by craving and aversion. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectation, if we want others to like us, if we do not get something we want, etc." This suggests that the desire to prevent "disabled" children from being born is a product of one's own suffering, not a compassionate way of reducing suffering in others.

    By Blogger Chasmatazz, at 11:18 PM  

  • Hi Charles. Thanks for your comment. You are correct in pointing out that my post was unclear on what I meant by learning from adversity. When I used the word "we," I meant it in a general sense, referring to the human species and the evolution of our society. I did not mean that individuals who suffer more are necessarily wiser than others.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:59 PM  

  • Well said!
    : )

    By Blogger Sister Sunshine, at 11:20 PM  

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