Is trying to transcend pain a pointless activity?

How much pain do we want in our lives? One straightforward answer is "as little as possible".

And it seems like a popular one — if the proliferation of increasingly specific painkillers and the popularity of movements like effective altruism is anything to go by.

We don't need to be neuroscientists to understand why: pain hurts.

But as Clemson philosophy Professor Todd May suggests, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we would genuinely like to be rid of certain sorts of pain.

I have known real despair about twelve times and most of these were to do with death — specifically, the deaths of people I cared about.

Some were protracted and painful deaths; others were sudden erasures, where the person's youth moved their death from 'tragedy' to 'injustice'.

But each triggered that strange feeling of being outside time. Perhaps W.H. Auden knew the same feeling when he wrote "stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone".

Would I prefer not to have had these experiences? I'm not sure. I certainly wouldn't want to have had too many in quick succession.

There was nothing pleasurable about them. A cousin of pleasure might come later, as catharsis, but the moment itself is just pain. A kind of rending of the ribcage.

Leonard Cohen might have sung that cracks are how the light gets in.

But you do worry that enough cracks in your heart will mean you'll just run out of heart?

Observing the world, rather than reacting

So suppose I do want to avoid these moments I'm calling despair.

I might turn to Stoicism or Buddhism — what Professor May calls "doctrines of invulnerability": templates that teach us to cultivate the sort of mind that tragedy will glance off, rather than destroy.

"What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world's contingencies so that they do not affect us," Professor May says.

"Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things — the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world's vagaries."

In practice, I might pursue the sort of meditation where I learn to observe the world, rather than react to it.

Or, I might do as philosopher Massimo Pigliucci does daily, and visualise the worst thing that could happen to me until I come to see it as a "dispreferred indifferent" — something I have a preference against, but that would not affect my worth and moral value were it to occur.

In other words, I might to try to crack a little distance between me and the world; a little space where I can fit some sunlight and a deep breath.

But for Professor May, this kind of distancing excises not just what hurts, but what matters.

"For most of us, the possibility of suffering is what goes with caring," he says.

It seems reasonable to aim for the kind of emotional state where missed buses and stepped-in puddles must pass through a little distance before sending us into recursive spirals of angst.

But Professor May questions the limits of this sort of distancing: do we want to confine our spouses, children, or our deepest aspirations to one side of an existential bridge that suffering cannot cross?

The Ancient stoic Anaxagoras is supposed to have reacted to his son's death by saying: "I always knew that my child was a mortal."

Compare this to Zadie Smith on the irrational, dangerous joy of having her child: "Isn't it bad enough that the beloved will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?"

Nobody wishes for their mother's annihilation, but I'll just ask the question: who would you rather grow up with, Anaxagoras or Smith? How would you rather be loved?

The thought in Professor May's work is not that suffering is unto itself definitive of a valuable life or even, counterintuitively, a happy one. The thought is rather that the sorts of things we seem to want — love, connection, various goals— are attended by a risk of serious suffering and that to annexe one is to annexe those desires.

Power in the pain

Doctrines of invulnerability seem to be having a moment.

Mindfulness became a billion-dollar industry in 2015 and is still growing, with $1,000 employee workshops and subscription apps that teach meditation for beginners proliferating constantly.

Stoic Week, founded in 2012, has thousands of sign-ups to hear what Stoicism has to offer today.

Even Mark Zuckerberg listed "eliminating desire" as one of his interests on Facebook — which could seem like a strange move, for a man who built an empire off the commodification and commercialisation of the verb "to like".

Strange, that is, until you remember that eliminating desire is part of Buddhism's path to eliminating suffering.

When we think of someone inured to suffering, is this who we are supposed to see? Zuckerberg with his impassive eyebrows and his apparent indifference to his monumental wealth?

Traditional stoics might prefer we came up with more rugged poster boys — perhaps Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer who spent two days cutting off his gangrenous thumb with a saw because he tired of waiting for doctors to amputate it.

Or maybe Lieutenant General Sir Adrian de Wiart, who across three wars was shot in the ear, ankle, leg, hip, head, stomach and face; survived two plane crashes; dug his way out of a POW camp; and (also) pulled off his own fingers rather than wait for them to heal, before writing that he had "frankly enjoyed" his time in combat.

There are many things to admire here, but the irony is that if you invulnerable, and never feel pain — then you're not enduring anything.

Pain not felt cannot be pain endured.

A thought experiment worth trying

In first year philosophy, we teach a thought experiment concocted by Robert Nozick.

It asks us to decide whether we would hook ourselves up to a machine that could simulate a life, with the perfect balance of pleasure over pain.

It could accommodate the laws of diminishing returns and incorporate just enough pain, so that we would not just feel pleasure, but truly appreciate it.

Would you plug in? This is what we ask the class.

Barring a certain sort of student who seems to like the taste of biteable bullets, the overwhelming response is "no". Professor Nozick's explanation is that we value something more than the balance of pain: we value a connection with reality.

In the name of accuracy — the students' answers change if we posit that what we are experiencing now is the simulation, and we ask whether they would unplug and enter the unknown real.

But at a minimum, we should wonder what this tells us. Are there moments when we want to hurt? Not in the way that alarms therapists and mental health statutes, but in a way that stands as a fitting emotional testament to the value of what we connect to.

What's standing in the way of us wanting to suffer as little as possible? Maybe we are.