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If you’re one of those masochists who read my overly long winded essays in addition to my newsletter you may have noticed that recently I’ve been fixated on the idea of healthy suffering.

When discussing suffering, you inevitably end up also discussing what makes a good life, since for most it’s synonymous with a lack of suffering. The many defenders of modernity will argue that this is its chief benefit. Technology and progress have reduced the level of material suffering for billions. But is a reduction of material suffering all it takes to give someone a good life? Or do people have needs other than the material, and might it take some amount of constructive suffering to fulfill those other needs?

There is an ongoing debate around this subject, and many people increasingly feel that whatever success modernity has had with the material, it has been an abject failure elsewhere. As evidence they will cite deaths of despair, the loneliness epidemic, and a general worsening of mental health

As is frequently the case, over time the discussion has been simplified down to two qualities: spiritual health and material health. I would argue that a lot of things which aren’t technically spiritual are getting dumped into that bucket — that it’s more “problems that can’t be directly solved with money” like the social, emotional, and psychological. But, with that caveat in place, I’ll also use the term spiritual going forward. And, to lay my cards on the table, I agree with the diagnosis of spiritual malaise in both the specific and the broader sense.

Certainly there are some who grant that modernity has not improved our spiritual health, but they will quickly follow up by saying that it was never meant to. That the two things are separate magisteria. Isn’t it enough that it’s done so much for us materially? Can’t we handle spiritual health on our own? This seems like a reasonable position, but it assumes that if modernity has not benefited our spiritual health, it has not damaged it either, which is not something I’m ready to grant. Still this argument is not the one that concerns me. Rather, my beef is with people who argue that progress and technology have done just as much for spiritual well-being as they have for material well-being. 

The other day I came across this very claim in an essay titled The spiritual benefits of material progress, by Jason Crawford. And it was very interesting to see the case stated so plainly. Crawford’s essential argument is that the modern world allows us greater opportunity to do whatever we want, and being able to do whatever we want is more likely to result in spiritual health than having less opportunity to do that. But is this actually true? Crawford doesn’t offer any proof. I can only assume that he feels it’s axiomatic that being able to act on your desires equals spiritual health and happiness, and being prevented from doing so equals suffering.  

His evidence consists of listing the opportunities afforded by the modern world: you can live wherever you want and do whatever work makes you happy. You can spend time “grasping the abstract truths revealed by math and science” and “correspond with other people for business or pleasure”. His list ends up reading more like instructions for winning a video game, than general advice for being spiritually healthy. Particularly since the vast majority of people do not get to live wherever they want, work at whatever they feel like, and spend their leisure time grasping abstract truths. Yes, I understand that more people get to do this than historically, but if this is what’s required for spiritual health, is it forever going to be the preserve of the top 1% globally?

For those of you that know people who are wealthy enough to live wherever they want and do whatever they want to do, are they paragons of spiritual health? Of emotional, psychological and social well being? You can have money, time, options, and the whole world at your feet, but still live a meaningless, mechanical life. And on top of everything else you’re still going to die. 

On the other hand there are people out there who have faced death, who have suffered, and come out the other side. Who not only despite this, but because of this are happy and healthy. Perhaps you know people like this. Their spiritual health did not come from playing life on god-mode. They were playing a game, but it was the grubby, high-stakes poker that the vast majority of us play. And like most us they had a crappy hand, but they played the hell out of it.

I should mention that I actually spend most of my free time “grasping the abstract truths revealed by math and science”. I’m not very good at it, but as it turns out you don’t need to be in order to be happy. You’d probably like to know my secret. Well it is a secret but perhaps a small donation might convince me to spill it…