Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Fractured Reflection on the Comparative

The route is set and the exit will soon be upon me. I look forward to this trip but I am nervous. The miles will be hard. On the first leg, I will travel more miles in a day than I normally travel in two weeks. The weather will be cold and I don’t know what the cops are like in any of the states through which I will travel. I can’t help but be intimidated. It is strange to think that I am traveling only a fraction of the distance that the men and women known as Iron Butts travel. There are cats who have ridden across the 48 states in less than 10 days. And even now, somewhere in south America, Nick Sanders is trying beat the world record for fastest motorcycle trip around the world. And he’s riding the new R1, which is the least comfortable R1 that there is. 

It isn’t strange to dread something that others encounter with relative ease. Some are more trained or experienced than others; it is only natural that tasks and possible experiences appear differently to us. But is there any use in the comparison? Is there anything that I can gain, any peace that I can find, from a contrast of experiences? 

Humanitarians often return from sites of charity opining about their newfound appreciation for life. The natives do so much with so little, they say. I’ve learned so much about myself just from seeing how they live! In John Edward's famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the preacher tells the congregation that the enjoyment of heaven is amplified by the suffering of sinners in hell. And we all know why we should eat all of our food- there are children starving in Africa. 

Maybe its more of a matter of mood than reasoning, but I find these moves kind of annoying. They give us a sense of location in the grand sphere of human experiences, but at the expense of the object of comparison. Lame humanitarians use the native sub-altern as the vehicle for their “life changing revelations.” Like, I know you are suffering and stuff, but imagine what your suffering has done for ME!  Fire and Brimstone-ish pastors talk shit about people who are in hell despite a theology that supposedly emphasizes compassion and forgiveness. People are burning alive; how is it okay to feel good about that? And the starving african child is just a construct to get me to eat my damn peas. I am not admonished to eat until I’m done, then go to Namibia and share the rest with the Nimba tribe. I am just supposed to clean my plate in a metaphorical act of hoarding resources away from the poor.

Yeah, Peter Singer excluded, comparative evaluation can be a jerky thing to engage in.  And it can also minimize one’s own experience of a thing. If you suffered a trauma, why should the fact that others suffered it bring you relief? Cioran says it best:

“Who can say with precision that my neighbor suffers more than I do or that Jesus suffered more than all of us? There is no objective standard because suffering cannot be measured according to the external stimulation or local irritation of the organism, but only as it is felt and reflected in consciousness. Alas, from this point of view, any hierarchy is out of the question. Each person remains with his own suffering, which he believes absolute and unlimited.”

There are serious costs for stifling your own pain under the greater pains of others. This I know. So maybe I should not deprecate myself because I find this trip daunting and there are others who do not. Maybe I should just find it daunting and get on with it. It’s nobody’s miserable journey but mine. And it starts in two days. Or thirty years ago. Whichever. 

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