Sunday, September 2, 2018


I am reading an interesting book. It is called The Beauty of Discomfort by Amanda Lang. People who watch CBC News will know her because she is on there a fair bit. It is an interesting book because she arrives at many of the same conclusions Christian writers arrive at, but does it in a very secular way. That is she looks at a society where people don't deny themselves any pleasure and they are not expected to walk through any pain and actually asks if this is a good idea. This is especially true of how we raise our children. Do we raise them too soft? We don't discipline them. We protect them from any potentially hurtful comment. Then we wonder why so many are unable or unwilling to overcome obstacles and really accomplish something in life. They just are not ready for the tears.

It goes further. It even tackles question like personal addictions from a discomfort point of view. Trying to look at that moment of temptation where you want but you know you should not. How can we do what we should do and not what our subconscious passions drive us to do? Interesting stuff. Many of the things she says echo what is in scripture and Christian spiritual writers. Yet she goes to science to justify it. For me it confirms with science much of what people of faith knew for a long time. Yet coming at it from another angle gives you a fuller picture. 

One big piece that is missing is grace. It is not explicitly stated that you cannot gain victory over sin by self effort. In fact, human effort seems like all she considers.Yet there are openings made to let God work. Without explicitly using God's name meditation could still become a form of prayer opening us up to God's grace. I know many people who came to Christianity through the 12 steps of AA. They say they experienced God's grace as a higher power before they came to know that Jesus is that higher power and all the 12 steps can be found in the bible. There is even the notion of Anonymous Christianity where people never take that second step of realizing it was Jesus who saved them yet they cooperate with His grace and are saved. 

What bothered me more about the book is the way it avoids the question of why. Why do we choose pain over pleasure? Not even why do we but why should we. She points out that sometimes it makes us happy. Sometimes great human achievements are made and great good is done. That is a good point. You can multiply examples of that. Yet the stories of these great people are the exception. They are not the rule. There is no guarantee that even in the long run the good will outweigh the bad. Actually many who do something great and arrive at a position of great comfort immediately embrace a new challenge that involves more discomfort. So they never win from a simple pain and pleasure perspective. 

This is OK for a Christian because we know why we are pursuing virtue. We want to glorify God in this life and continue on the road heaven to get ourselves there and lead others there. That is what gives life meaning. If we know it is the path of holiness God has set for us then any discomfort makes sense because the goodness of God is just that good. 

She tackles the question of meaning in the last chapter and it is fairly lame. She tells the story of Maher Arar which is a very compelling story. Still what does it have to do with meaning? It is just that eventually his sufferings led to some good. OK, that might happen. But many are tortured like Arar and do not see their stories effect any change. One might even argue that Arar's story has not changed much. 

It is unclear what is meant by "good." Is it just that there will be less pain and more pleasure for others in the future? If that is all it is then the argument contradicts itself. The whole thesis of the book is that comfort is not the highest good. It needs to serve some greater good. Yet what is that greater good? She won't go there. 

It seems to me that you need to start there. To know what is good enough to make you sacrifice your comfort. It should be good enough not just in the scenario where you end up changing the world because the odds of that are long. It should be good enough even if you fail by secular standards. That doing the right thing matters even when no human reason seems evident. But then you need some way to know it is right. Even if you do change the world how do you know you are changing it for good and not for ill? If you don't have clear answers to those questions it seems like facing the hard days of discomfort would be impossible. 

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