🪟 15 - The Narrator
Frame & Axiom #15
Table of contents
The art of suffering
To pursue adventure... to paint strokes on the canvas of reality... to fully own the capacities we have been endowed. Such things are not happy. They are a struggle. The antithesis of attainment. But only in such struggles, will we find ourselves well and truly content!
Ultimate contentment, as achieved through the radical acceptance of present states and the pursuit of just ideals, precedes that which we call “the meaning of life”. One who is ultimately content finds a basis to persist in existence. But my own experience of life tells me that this contentment, and the meaning offered through it, is unalienable from some form of struggle — an eternal gap between desire and attainment, and the burden of life itself. Struggling, or suffering, is ever-present in our default states. That is why it is reasonable to make this judgement of living: to live is to struggle/suffer.
In the Book of Genesis, the struggle of humankind is the curse of humankind.
To the woman [God] said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. ...”
To Adam [God] said, “... Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
What do we make of this suffering that we have been thrown into?
🪟 15 - The Narrator
I am known among my circles for despising long walks in nature. My preference is to walk in a manner that allows me to quit at soon as I have had enough of it, which is achievable mostly in my own neighbourhood. Or I would much rather sit alone accompanied by a cup of coffee in stillness and silence, or in a well-lit and mildly chattery ambience. So recently, when I was pulled into an 8km hike as part of a team-bonding activity, I felt resigned to it. I would take a bus right up the mountains if I could! All the same, I could see how the events would play out. I would despise nearly every moment of it, but I was going to feel a degree of satisfaction as soon as I was done with it, that would pay off the debt it incurred.
So I hiked. (Not that I had much of a choice.) Sure enough, my expectations materialised, and my replies to “how did you find the hike?” were largely affirmative. But such is the nature of hardship, in toiling, in struggling, in suffering... whatever we call it. Hardship, generally speaking, endows satisfaction. How so? One may learn to appreciate her default states after going through a relatively undesirable period (the gift of new framing) and heave a good-natured sigh of relief, but that is not what I am referring to here. What I am referring to is this: a hardship, when narrated in a manner that gives it a positive meaning, endows satisfaction.
Yet again, here is why narration, and the pursuit of effective framing, is of total importance! One who suffers meaningfully that is, towards a just end, finds a deeply personal ground in her hardship. An artist who lives below her means in order to completely pursue her art becomes the hero in her own framing. On the other hand, one who suffers towards a meaningless end finds no similar grounding. An artist who lives below her means spitefully against a world that has no care for the sacred work of art, may find a trickle of satisfaction to cling to, perhaps by wallowing in self-pity, but it is only a trivial form of satisfaction that cannot compare to the contentment found in the former. Here she has quite uninspiringly become a victim of her own bad framing.
The moment I learnt of my fated hike, I could observe my inner Narrator called to action within my psyche. Within the span of mere seconds, my Narrator was to provide a narration of my fortunes, and I could guide it, so long as it sufficiently corresponded to reality. How shall I narrate this activity I was subjected to? My teammate, the chief instigator, persuaded me on the grounds that it provided a stimulant for social connection. But I was not convinced as I saw the social rewards to be equally obtainable elsewhere (and in more favourable conditions). Now, I could decide to retreat to my first feeling — and see the hike as an activity I despised, and do it begrudgingly. Or! As the thought suddenly arrived in my mind: I could narrate it to be a unique exercise beneficial for my health. Now, the latter story was one that I could accept and be gripped by, for that sufficiently corresponded to reality. It was something I could believe. Is it not the case that a good exercise ought to be sometimes dreadful? Ah... I was pleased. And relieved. I had managed a narration of this activity that would do me some good. The more I recounted this belief to others, the more it solidified in reality. In this sense, the ability to be creative, which bleeds into one’s own narration of life’s vicissitudes, is incomprehensibly useful. Few ‘talents’ are more far-reaching than it.
It seems that any hardship can endow satisfaction, and it is up to us to unearth it through no more than an effective narration. Is life itself not akin to a long and sometimes dreadful hike? I think we can carry over the narrative treatment to the domain of experience itself. The meaningfulness of my hike was up to the narration of its struggle. The meaningfulness of life itself is, also, up to the narration of its struggle. One may object: but a hike is only a trivial matter! That is reasonable. The question then follows: does our ability to narrate a hardship become impossible past a certain intensity? Surely the oppressed might find themselves unable to extract any form of goodness whatsoever in their suffering. What we are concerned with now, is the limits of narration (framing) and how much space the court of reality allows to dance within. To address it, I shall escalate the stakes accordingly, and go from my trivial hiking experience to prisoners of concentration camps. Is there a hardship much more intense than that? It is brutality, injustice and hopelessness dialled to the maximum.
But even with maximal difficulty, the architecture of our psyche is so adaptable that we possess the capacity to transcend almost anything, so long as the psyche itself remains untampered. The capacity of the mind to retain its power is truly remarkable! Frankl, oppressed under the Nazi regime, could still make the following observations:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
As did Solzhenitsyn, under the horrors of Soviet Russia:
“Live with a steady superiority over life — don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.”
“Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
And most surprisingly of all (and as I love to recount), the following narration can be made of such horrors:
“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
So it appears, the court of reality allows us an infinite space to dance in our narration of all things. How will we narrate our suffering? What will we choose to believe? A prolific Narrator is aware of her narrations (framing). She sees the malleability of stories that can be told, and dances in it. In response, she is rewarded with world-changing revelations.
Till next time,