Popsicle #36: The Value of Suffering by Pico Iyer

In the next few days we’ll be announcing a new LBM book made in collaboration with the writer Pico Iyer. It has been such a delight to work with Pico. He’s brought generosity, humor and transparency to every one of our exchanges. So I was thrilled when I opened up the Sunday New York Times a couple of weeks ago and saw he’d written a piece for Op-Ed section. I was also deeply moved. I read ‘The Value of Suffering’ while visiting a loved one in the hospital who’d been struggling with complications from cancer surgery. What makes the piece so great – and something I wanted to share with her – is that it isn’t the least bit preachy:

Philosophy cannot cure a toothache, and the person who starts going on about its long-term benefits may induce a headache, too. Anyone who’s been close to a loved one suffering from depression knows that the vicious cycle behind her condition means that, by definition, she can’t hear the logic or reassurances we extend to her; if she could, she wouldn’t be suffering from depression.

Occasionally, it’s true, I’ll meet someone — call him myself — who makes the same mistake again and again, heedless of what friends and sense tell him, unable even to listen to himself. Then he crashes his car, or suffers a heart attack, and suddenly calamity works on him like an alarm clock; by packing a punch that no gentler means can summon, suffering breaks him open and moves him to change his ways….

But does that change all the many times when suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all, and only a resentment of those who tell us to look on the bright side and count our blessings and recall that time heals all wounds (when we know it doesn’t)?

I’m writing this week’s Popsicle from my hotel room in Tokyo (where a typhoon appears to be brewing outside my window). This is my first visit to Japan and I’ve been flabbergasted by the depth of the cultural differences I’ve seen here.  The British-born Iyer lives in Japan and is able to speak to the way these differences play out in our response to suffering:

“I’ll do my best!” and “I’ll stick it out!” and “It can’t be helped” are the phrases you hear every hour in Japan; when a tsunami claimed thousands of lives north of Tokyo two years ago, I heard much more lamentation and panic in California than among the people I know around Kyoto.

My favorite part of Iyer’s essay is his discussion of Kobayashi Issa’s 18th century haiku. Rather than restate Iyer’s point, I think I’ll just end with Issa’s poem. This is a perfect thing for me to read as I head out into a dark and rainy day:

This world of dew
is only a world of dew –
and yet




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