Alex Blaze

When suffering has meaning

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 23, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: civil rights movement, LGBT, Martin Luther King Jr., stride towards freedom, suffering

Two weeks ago I posted on the "boring life" myth in LGBT activism. I've noticed it for years - we say something along the lines of "Our lives are actually really boring. We go to work, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, and then watch the grass grow. Sometimes we play checkers and feast on plain rice and water. But only once a year, because we're not exciting, dangerous, threatening homosexuals."

JesusCross.jpgIt isn't my cup of tea, and I'm not saying that anyone else should have to live an exciting life. But there has to be something else there, something that gives life a purpose, something that connects people to something larger than what they are. Currently, our messaging and focus on being as boring as possible is only turning off people's instinctive drive to help and be fun and live passionately, or at least directing it elsewhere. Imagine how different it could be if we focused on how being gay is a wonderful existence that opens up new possibilities.

That's what I'm thinking about as I come to the fourth topic in writing about Martin Luther King's Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, a direct action that got 50,000 people engaged and making large sacrifices for over a year. Here's a passage from the end of that boycott, after he gave his speech announcing the integration of buses in Montgomery:

The audience stood and cheered loudly. This was the moment toward which they had pressed for more than a year. The return to the buses, on an integrated basis, was a new beginning. But it was a conclusion, too, the end of an effort that had drawn Montgomery's Negroes together as never before. To many of those present the joy was not unmixed. Some perhaps feared what might happen when they began to ride the buses again the next day. Others had found a spiritual strength in sacrifice to a cause; now that the sacrifice was no longer necessary. Like many consummations, the one left a slight aftertaste of sadness.

What? They got what they wanted, what they had worked and sacrificed for, and they were sad? Here's another passage from the beginning of the boycott:

Despite this success [of the carpool's organization], so profoundly had the spirit of the protest become a part of the people's lives that sometimes they even preferred to walk when a ride was available. The act of walking, for many, had become of symbolic importance. Once a pool driver stopped beside an elderly woman who was trudging along with obvious difficulty.

"Jump in, grandmother," he said. "You don't need to walk."

She waved him on. "I'm not walking for myself," she explained. "I'm walking for my children and my grandchildren." And she continued toward home on foot.

What took over these people? Had that one Martin Luther King character driven them to madness? Here's the reaction of a woman who well was outside King's reach. Consider her thoughts on the boycott, expressed in a letter:

And a Swiss woman whose "friends and husband do not understand" saved her own money to send us one of our largest individual contributions. "Since I have no possibility," she wrote, "to help you in an efficacious manner (this is such a bad feeling, believe me) and I burningly would like to do just something, I send you these 500 dollar... You would make me a very great pleasure, if you accepted, because what else could I do?"

Her friends and husband did not understand, but can we understand?

What drove the action wasn't just the superb organization or the incredible motivation people had to end one form of segregation. They were driven because they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In that way, their suffering was no long mere pain, but redemptive suffering that improved the world.

I've been iffy about redemptive suffering lately. What I see in 2010 is the right is using it effectively to get people to oppose things that are for their own benefit. Consider how some states are giving up paved roads because tax cuts have been turned to religious iconography.

It's ridiculous because they don't have to accept unpaved roads. This is 2010 in the richest country in the world. Paved roads should be a given. As should universal, affordable health care, respectable and secure pensions, and an income large enough to stay alive without having to depend on friends and family for financial support, whether one works or not. All of that's possible - people don't have to suffer.

But people want to suffer because they've been misinformed into thinking that their suffering benefits the country as a whole, by reducing deficits or keeping America competitive or creating wealth for their grandchildren or whatever other justification fiscal conservatives can come up with. It's easy to see how selling suffering as redemptive can be used for nothing more than a grift.

On the other hand, people will always suffer because life is suffering, so they want to see meaning to it instead of living boring lives that will soon be forgotten, where their suffering occurs alone and just hurts.

We're all going to die and people want to know that their presence will have meant something to future generations. It's natural and it's the force that drive soldiers to die in wars and revolutionaries to risk their lives and parents to put their dreams on hold for their children and people to donate to causes that will give them nothing in return.

And when good people working for justice and peace aren't explaining how to get meaning through suffering, people will look elsewhere and will become easy targets for crooks. King writes a great deal about suffering, and the way one can tell a grifter from a moral leader is that the leader will suffer along with everyone else for the cause because they actually believe it. Fiscal conservative leaders laugh at the rubes who gave up their paved roads while sipping martinis on their yachts; Martin Luther King risked his life and gave up all his time and energy to the boycott.

He quotes Gandhi: "Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood." He describes nonviolence as a form of redemptive suffering:

One may well ask: "What is the nonviolent resister's justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?" The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities. "Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering," said Gandhi. He continues: "Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason."

Now, I'm not saying that the LGBT movement should start asking people to suffer generally; rather what we need to examine is how our goals work in with broader existential questions. Are we working on improving our grandchildren's lives? Well, most of us don't have children, and even if we do they aren't necessarily queer. Are we working to improve the world for everyone? I would say yes, or at least many of us are, but how often is that articulated?

When King got arrested during the boycott, he wasn't trying to get arrested. He wasn't doing a sit-in and told he had to leave or he'd be arrested. He didn't stand somewhere he wasn't allowed to be so that he could be arrested. That's a tactic that has been used to some effect, but it wasn't his tactic. He was driving people home in the carpool and police followed him in motorcycles waiting for him to violate a traffic law so they could arrest him. They accused him of going 30 in a 25 mph zone and arrested him.

He went willingly and suffered, but the meaning of the suffering came first. I'm not asking how we use that to our advantage; that's how a grifter thinks. But has our avoidance of suffering in our comfortable culture left people open to being swindled?

And has it drained our social justice movements of meaning?

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Kevin Erickson | September 23, 2010 6:52 PM

good stuff as always, alex.

I think so many queer people end up suffering in pointless useless ways, that the idea of having to WILLINGLY suffer for a cause seems unattractive. But better to suffer usefully than let others suffer uselessly.

or, as Mirah wrote in "Monument" (best queer protest song of the decade):
We've got it all worked out, the plans all made
If we believe in the fight in then we're all saved
It's gonna hurt for a while but it would anyway.
Let us stand resolute with our voices raised

The meaningfulness of suffering is a deep philosophical subject, with spiritual overtones --- or maybe vice versa. I waited to see what others would comment, and since there aren't many comments showing up, I wonder whether we just aren't interested, or are we being scared off by the weightiness of the topic? I also waited because the attempts I made a composing a comment were rambling and incoherent --- and finally my thoughts are a little better organized, but they are still incomplete.

Even so, I think the meaningfulness of suffering is an important subject for us.

I am reminded of what I read in The Road Less Traveled many years ago; that some suffering is legitimate and required by life itself, some suffering is illegitimate and unnecessary, and that discipline is the way that humans properly face required, legitimate suffering. Discipline cannot be chosen in a moment, it requires training over an extended period. Actions become habits, habits become discipline, discipline becomes character, and character becomes destiny.

I don't think our community is very good at discipline, and that means we are not very good at suffering. One reason we are not good at discipline is that our childhoods were full of too many false truths. To come out, we had to reject what we were taught, that being gay was evil, sick, and socially unacceptable. Some of us had to reject what the bullies at school told us about ourselves. Some of us rejected the religions of our childhood. As we got more accustomed to rejecting things we were taught as youngsters, there was bound to be a few things that some of us rejected and shouldn't have. Some of us decided that the rules were not designed for us, and in order to survive we had to find our own set of new rules.

As explained in The Road Less Traveled, discipline is also related to the sense of self worth. It is important for a child's parents to show that their child is valuable. A child accepts the pain of discipline because she or he sees that they are valuable, and the result of the disciplined activity is worth it. Many of these childhood disciplines, such as studying, eating well, and following good habits of self-care, makes us into better people; a child with healthy self-worth will feel like, "The valuable person I can become is worth the pain of doing my homework, brushing my teeth, eating my veggies" and so forth.

But as young LGBT children, our sense of self-worth can be damaged in obvious ways. In church we hear that our sexual feelings pre-dispose us to go to Hell. In school we are called "sissy" or "tomboy". The in-crowd whispers that we are "queer" behind our backs. We can end up feeling bad about ourselves, and that interferes with our healthy development of discipline.

(LGBT children are not the only ones. We can see that growing up in a chaotic ghetto, with few adults modelling good disciplined habits and many youngsters ingesting a fatalistic sense that one's future has nothing to promise, can result in the same absence of healthy discipline development.)

So the next question becomes (and it seems to be the point of Alex's post here) is "What if our LGBT community were better at suffering and discipline? How could we use suffering and discipline as movement tools to better advantage?"

Certainly, protesting and boycotting are forms of suffering and discipline. We all have more fun things to do.

HIV prevention efforts could frame safe sex practices as a form of discipline, and even a form of "suffering" since we are giving up the greater pleasure and spontaneity of unprotected sex. But would this be more effective? There are only so many saints among us, only so many guys are willing to think of themselves a tantric monks, and thus I doubt it.

And since I am not here to write a sermon, I'll end with that set of questions. I'm not entirely happy with this comment, it feels incomplete ... but maybe I've made some type of connection between the discipline shown by the walking grandmother, and the discipline we see or don't see in the LGBT world.