When I tell people that I think that my life is on balance suffering, a common response is to treat that observation as a form of self-pity and to respond with moral indignation. “How dare you say such a thing? Think of all the blessings in your life! Think of all the people who are worse off than you are!”
Thank you, I am perfectly aware that many people are worse off than me. Indeed, I suspect that I am a good deal better off than most people who now live or who have ever lived. I have never an illness more serious than childhood appendicitis. I have never been a parent to a child who died young. I have never been poor, even as “poor” is understood in a rich industrial society. I have never been to prison, or been the victim of any crime (as far as I know) more serious than a trivial misdemeanor. I have never (again, as far as I know) been falsely accused of any form of serious wrongdoing. I have never had to earn a living doing backbreaking labor in a field or a mine or a factory. I have never had an abusive boss or domestic partner. I am not the member of any hated ethnic or sexual outgroup. (At worst I am an atheist with some strange ideas about life and some weird sexual predilections, but I don’t think that makes my life as difficult as even that of middle-class African-Americans in the contemporary American society).
I get it. I enjoy a lot of privilege.
When I say that I think my life is on balance suffering, I am not engaging in a competitive bid for scarce human sympathies against the many others to whom they would surely be better directed. I am simply making a self-observation on the basis of the best definition I can come up with.
The observation allows an inference — an dreadful one, to be sure. The lives of most people who are living or who have ever lived have been on balance suffering. A very significant premise, from which momentous conclusions can be drawn.
And by the way, I must ask…if you tell me that most people are worse off than I, are you offering that observation with the thought that it should somehow make me feel…better? If so, what sort of monster do you take me for?