Skip to main content

First world problems

Elizabeth Pearce

Posted on Friday 24 May 2013

Share on

By Elizabeth Pearce1

I was halfway through Middlemarch when I got (‘fell’) pregnant. I’m not suggesting there’s a connection. I have only just been able to pick the book up again, and when I say ‘pick the book up’ that is not a metaphor (or metonymy) for reading it; I literally have been unable to look at it or touch the cover due to the powerful association I have built between it, and the all-day, all pervasive morning sickness that promptly followed my ‘falling’ and that, frustratingly, led to no actual vomiting, meaning that it wasn’t even classed as bad in the scale of things. ‘The scale of things’. That means the scale of my wonderful, privileged life, the one in which I can get pregnant when I want to, distinguishing me from lots of other women and couples who have to go through all sorts to get to that point; and distinguishing me, further, from the rest of the world for which getting pregnant and having morning sickness are not significant problems at all, in the scale of things.

I have been wondering a lot lately (ever since I realised I was not going to dedicate my life to saving the world or even, as I had planned when I was younger, to easing the suffering of sick or exploited animals) about the quality of suffering. Is the suffering I rate in my own ‘scale’—that of drug addiction, divorce, loneliness, cancer, failure to express oneself or to fulfill ambition—made of the same stuff, boast the same blood and tendon, as that suffering, unimaginable to me, of war, famine, genocide, or the suppression of human rights? I know that it differs in magnitude: we should be more horrified by, say, the exploitation of children in sweatshops than by the physical degradation and social isolation of old age. Or should we? Is suffering just suffering, regardless of whether its source lies with barbarity (in the first instance), or inevitability (in the second)? Do the scales shift, giving us an ever-relative experience of pain? But the reason that I frame the question, I confess with some shame, is that I want to be able to justify (or not) my ongoing decision to do nothing at all to put a stop to that second-order variety of human atrocity. For instance: two of my friends dedicate a lot of their spare time and energy (and who has much of that?) to raising money to educate children in Benin, and traveling to that country when they can. I could do something like that, but I don’t.

I believe I was sincere in my plans, at a younger age, to ‘do something’, and I don’t think my decision now not to fulfill those plans has anything to do with loss of innocence (even now I rail against the you’ll-grow-out-of-it dismissals we perpetuate on the idealistic young). Hmm. Perhaps my inaction does have something to do with the fact that I recognise, having lived a little longer, that ‘goodness’ is infinitely contingent: there are no essentially decent acts (due to immeasurably complex consequences), but only decent intentions – which are, in turn, shadowed by any number of murkier motivations. (Brian Boyd writes in his book On the Origin of Stories about the fact that, in evolutionary terms, the best way for a socially competitive organism like a human to conceal its intentions from others is to not know them itself. The truth as I see it is that we never really know why we do things and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to find out. Instead we should focus on trying to control the impulses we know from imagination or experience lead to the suffering of ourselves or those around us). Being privy to the childhoods of others (my husband’s boys) has taught me a great deal about the contingency of good and bad: each boy is very different to the other. It is easy for me to see, from my privileged adult vantage point, that they are often, in conflict, both right at once; they do wrong to each other just by (rightly) being themselves. I wish I could explain that to them in words they’d understand. It would truly, I believe, set them up to better know the world and so to make the best of it.

What do you do with the suffering in the world? is a question asked by many (everyone, perhaps); among them, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Like Dorothea (at least as her character stands in the first half of the book. What I am doing now—writing about a book only half-read—is an atrocity in my book, but I hope, given the circumstances, you’ll forgive me this once?)… Like Dorothea, I am prone to over-empathy, that scourge her admirer Will Ladislaw (do they get together?) calls ‘the fanaticism of sympathy’. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say with Dorothea that ‘it spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it’; but I have been prone to the recurring, tormenting thought: Why should I be happy when that other person can’t be?

It is something of a cliché perhaps to recall that Mother Theresa said, when asked what we should do to promote world peace, ‘Go home and love your family’. (She also said in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize lecture that ‘the greatest destroyer of peace today’ is—abortion. Actually she said it twice. I don’t even find the sentiment that offensive because it is just too weird. I was asked recently if my impending-mother status impacts how I feel about the issue. Yes it does. I have always supported free choice but my own experience has intensified my feelings of indignation—yes, outrage—at the audacity of any group or individual to have any say at all over the completion or otherwise of a pregnancy. It is an intensely personal business, a figment of my body, a biological quirk—at least, up until a certain point in time.2 On my way to work I walk past an abortion clinic, outside which Christian protestors gather each morning; one elderly man wears a sandwich board-style contraption sporting life-size models of fetuses that I could, if I wanted to, pop out and hold. I used to find these religious folk amusing, and even say good morning to them—who am I to discriminate against them on the grounds of their beliefs? They think they’re doing right in the world. But the thought, now, of the things those women must feel as they enter that building, each with their inherently worthy reasons for terminating their pregnancy—I don’t believe any person would make that choice for casual reasons—has put an end to my congenial tolerance of the protestors. I feel seriously pissed off with them instead. And by the way, if you want to you can buy from the internet a number of Mother Theresa abortion-quotation bumper stickers). But what I wanted to say, with or without Mother T, is that the advent of family, mature love, and the understanding that everyone—even people with seemingly everything—suffers, has perhaps been the biggest reason for the non-emergence of the world-saving zeal I looked forward to in youth. I offer this neither as excuse nor justification, merely the truth. Instead of posing navel-gazing questions like, ‘Can I justify my existence?’ I intend to do as much as I can to extend sympathy to the people in my life, friends and strangers, who are inevitably suffering their own silent, first-world scale pain. It is either enough or it isn’t (and of course it isn’t, how could it be?). I will think, as well, of the people around me whose strength, happiness and decency have rubbed off on me when I have been weak, miserable and ignoble. As Will Ladislaw would have it:

The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery?3

And I’m going to finish Middlemarch.

1 I got hitched.
2 If this is neither a scientifically, nor morally, nor philosophically coherent estimation of the beginning point of human life, that is because we humans are incoherent entities. And I’m not saying that ‘the beginning point of human life’ is automatically equivalent to the point at which abortion should be illegal. 
3 Middlemarch quotes are taken from page 219 ‘in case you care’ – to paraphrase my co-blogger Luke Hortle.