Treating Suffering as a Virtue

 

I have been reading a book called Ana Yurt by Zordun Sabir. I have yet to finish it, but *spoiler alert* there was a death in it which bothered me a little. It is a bit of an Uncle Ben, but there was something else about the way it came about that got to me, although I could not at first put my finger on it. Soon after, I saw a Facebook comment that said the phrase “…a culture that treats the suffering of women as a virtue…” in reference to Korean women and that really hit the mark – the author had glorified the suffering of this female character before she was killed “before her time”.

At first I had thought he was providing some sort of social commentary, showing how female characters get the short end of the stick on all fronts of life. However, there was no attempt to ease the suffering, no attempt to nudge the reader in a direction that suggested we should change our culture. Perhaps the author was simply telling the story as it is, perhaps it was the character who thought suffering was something to be looked upon lovingly. Nevertheless, I do think our culture treats suffering, especially the suffering of motherhood, as something virtuous.

I have seen people arguing that in this entitled society of ours, no one treats suffering as a virtue and all believe that affliction should be avoided at all costs. I do not necessarily agree with this, nor do I think people do not value “suffering”. Everyone suffers at some point in life, and some more than others, and suffering can bring about good in oneself – patience, perseverance, some sort of excellence while overcoming that suffering – and in others – empathy, charity, respect, etc. Perhaps some may never overcome their suffering, and so will use it for good, or own it as their lot in life. Perhaps that shows their strengths. Pain, and in extension, suffering, is an essential part of our lives as human beings. No, what I want to argue against is unnecessary suffering, and the glorification of such suffering; the type of suffering that could be ended, but is not because it is so ingrained in our minds as a virtue that we forget that it must be eased away.

Coming back to the book, we see the dilemma that a good husband faces when he sees his wife working so hard. His wife Rayhangul was from a rich family but married a poorer guy out of love, stayed loyal to him until she died despite advances from other men; she is beautiful, feisty, hard-working, the literal backbone of the family (and has 5 kids). She sacrifices her youth for the needs of her family. Utterly unselfish. The bichare, japakesh ayal.

She is doing a million things at once while he sits there, taking a break and watching her. He sees the fire under the stove escaping, but does not dare go and fix it. Apparently Taranchi men do not cook: it would be like running naked down the street! Taranchi men should not even touch the dough: it would be like using a chicken to drive a dog sled! They cannot go near the kitchen: women’s work. All women’s work. Feeding and comforting the baby when she cries? Women’s work. He believes it would be easy for him to knead the dough or milk the cow; he is physically strong. But he cannot because he would lose the respect of all the villagers.

The author does point out that when women do “men’s work” like helping them harvest, etc. no one says anything about them “becoming a man”, but when a man is told to feed the child it is like he is being asked to “become a woman”. The author must be pointing out the hypocrisy here, but I am not entirely convinced yet. We do see the husband compromise his beliefs and feed the child, but that is only because he is a good and kind man who loves his family. However, he does not get out of his seat. One might think that the woman is only doing her share of the work and the man has already finished his, but this is not the case. The author goes through a whole list of things the woman does besides cooking that requires people management skills and physical labour. She barely has a moment to herself. Her work, as shown by the author, far exceeds the man’s, but this is just the way it is.

In direct contrast to this, there is another character, a teenage boy, who wants to put himself through hardships and “know what it is to suffer” so that he may overcome it all and become a “giant” of his generation, a knowledgeable philosopher, a worldly scholar. In a sense, he is glorifying suffering as well. However, it is something seen as exceptional, something that this genius boy is doing in order to attain the highest ranks of society. Not all men do what he does; men are to live lives full of “laughter and meshrep” whereas women lead a “tearful, worry-filled” life and then “die before their time”. The author states it as a fact of life rather than something that should happen, so I suppose the reader can come to their own conclusion as to whether this culture should change. In context of our culture however, it does seem like these sorts of superwomen are being placed on pedestals and revered and respected so that when a normal woman acts like a person with flaws, they are blamed and asked why they cannot be perfect. It is an unrealistic expectation, and a heavy one at that. Women should not need to live a life of sorrow. It is not something that was destined for every woman by God. It may happen to women, just as it may happen to men, but it is not something we must do because of our gender.

Regarding motherhood, there is a little argument for whether childbirth and motherhood even needs to be a sacrifice – it should be a celebration; you should not have to end one life to start another. Plenty of parents are overjoyed when they have children, why must we see it as if the mother has now stripped herself of agency and pleasure? In instances where it is a sacrifice (perhaps to one’s health or career or goals) we should change society so that motherhood is not that big of a loss. I do not believe in keeping the status quo on these sorts of issues.

Some say that the virtue of suffering comes from a religious or spiritual place. We do glorify martyrs, after all. But surely Islam teaches us to help others, to make others smile, to ease our mothers’ pains? Surely Islam teaches us that harming ourselves is forbidden, and suicide is one of the greatest sins? We help others to ease their suffering. “Verily, after hardship comes ease” – suffering is meant to be transient, not a contract you enter into that begins at motherhood and ends in death. We are supposed to save the mothers, we are supposed to give back to mothers who spent years nurturing us, we are not supposed to let them continue their suffering; they already did and do more than enough.

So yes, we should respect those who have suffered for the greater good, but we should not turn suffering into a virtue. We should help those women out of their suffering and make it so that our daughters do not have to suffer as much. I do not want to be told to live like Rayhangul. I respect her and admire her strength, but people should not expect me, or any girl, to be like her. If I truly believe in something then I will do it out of my own will, but having social pressures push me into that position is detrimental to the health of society as a whole.

 

  1. While looking for an article online, I came across this thesis(?) called The Cultural Evolution of Suffering. I have yet to read it but the first few pages seemed interesting so I will leave the link here for anyone curious. There is also a funny little paragraph on memes.

 

 

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