5 September 2014

from Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, 1974

'Suffering is a misunderstanding,' Shevek said, leaning forward, his eyes wide and light. He was still lanky, with big hands, protrudng ears, and angular joints, but in the perfect health and strength of early manhood he was very beautiful. His dun-coloured hair, like the others', was fine and straight, worn at its full length and kept off the forehead with a band. Only one of them wore her hair differently, a girl with high cheekbones and a flat nose; she had cut her dark hair to a shiny cap all round. She was watching Shevek with a steady, serious gaze. Her lips were greasy from eating fried cakes, and there was a crumb on her chin.

'It exists,' Shevek said, spreading out his hands. 'It's real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can't pretend that it doesn't exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it's right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can't prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering - unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we'll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we'll die. That's the condition we're born on. I'm afraid of life! There are times I - I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet, I wonder if it isn't all a misunderstanding - this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain... If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could...get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It's the self that suffers, and there's a place where the self - ceases. I don't know how to say it. But I believe that the reality, the truth which I recognise in suffering as I don't in comfort and happiness - that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.'

'The reality of our life is in love, in solidarity,' said a tall, soft-eyed girl. 'Love is the true condition of human life.'

Bedap shook his head. 'No. Shev's right,' he said. 'Love's just one of the ways through, and it can go wrong, and miss. Pain never misses. But therefore we don't have much choice about enduring it! We will, whether we want to or not.'

The girl with the short hair shook her head vehemently. 'But we won't! One in a hundred, one in a thousand, goes all the way, all the way through. The rest of us keep pretending we're happy, or else just go numb. We suffer, but not enough. And so we suffer for nothing.'

'What are we supposed to do,' said Tirin, 'go hit our heads with hammers for an hour every day to make sure we suffer enough?'

'You're making a cult of pain,' another said. 'An Odonian's goal is positive, not negative. Suffering is dysfunctional, except as a bodily warning against danger. Psychologically and socially it's merely destructive.'

'What motivated Odo but an exceptional sensitivity to suffering - her own and others'?' Bedap retorted.

'But the whole principle of mutual aid is designed to prevent suffering!'

Shevek was sitting on the table, his long legs dangling, his face intense and quiet. 'Have you ever seen anybody die?' he asked the others. Most of them had, in a domicile or on volunteer hospital duty. All but one had helped at one time or another to bury the dead.

'There was a man when I was in camp in the Southeast - it was the first time I saw anything like this. There was some defect in the aircar engine, it crashed lifting off and caught fire. They got him out burned all over. He lived about two hours. He couldn't have been saved; there was no reason for him to live that long, no justification for those two hours. We were waiting for them to fly in anaesthetics from the coast. I stayed with him, along with a couple of girls, we'd been there loading the plane. There wasn't a doctor. You couldn't do anything for him, except just stay there, be with him. He was in shock but mostly conscious. He was in terrible pain, mostly from his hands - I don't think he knew the rest of his body was all charred, he felt it mostly in his hands. You couldn't touch him to comfort him, the skin and flesh would come away at your touch, and he's scream. You couldn't do anything for him. There was no aid to give. Maybe he knew we were there, I don't know. It didn't do him any good. You couldn't do anything for him. Then I saw...you see...I saw that you can't do anything for anybody. We can't save each other. Or ourselves.'

'What have you left, then? Isolation and despair! You're denying brotherhood, Shevek!' the tall girl cried.

'No - no, I'm not. I'm trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins - it begins in shared pain.'

'Then where does it end?'

'I don't know. I don't know yet.'

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