Suffering and Purpose

Suffering and Purpose

A collection of links on a Saturday night.

1. Suffering and Suffering Well, a beautiful homily from Father Philip Powell, OP

My point? I had been in constant pain for almost four months, and I grieved my loss of independence. But I had yet to suffer. Pain is not suffering. Grief is not suffering. Since I was merely experiencing pain and not giving that pain purpose, I had refused to suffer. There was no grace for me in simply being in pain. Once I decided to allow the pain to have a purpose (i.e., “to suffer the pain”) as a gift of humility, my recovery quickened, and I was able to go back to work in month or so. Now, when my oh-so-ready pride pokes its head into my business, I remember the scene of my mom struggling to get my socks on without hurting me—the two of us crying like babies at the absurdity of the whole thing.

The question is not “do you suffer?” but “do you suffer well?” Or, rather “do you allow your pain/grief to have a purpose?”


2. Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough on New Mothers?

This country is one of the only utterly lacking in a culture of postpartum care. Some version of the lie-in is still prevalent all over Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and particular parts of Europe; in these places, where women have found the postpartum regimens of their own mothers and grandmothers slightly outdated, they’ve revised them. The U.S. seems only to understand pregnancy as a distinct and fragile state. For the expectant, we issue reams of proscriptions—more than can reasonably be followed. We tell them what to eat and what not to eat. We ask that they visit the doctor regularly and that they not do any strenuous activity. We give them our seats on the bus. Finally, once they’ve actually undergone the physical trauma of it, their bodies thoroughly depleted, we beckon them most immediately to rejoin the rest of us. One New York mother summed up her recent postpartum experience this way: “You’re not hemorrhaging? OK, peace, see you later.”

The problem is that no one recognizes the new mother as a recuperating person, and she does not see herself as one. For the mourning or the injured, we will activate a meal tree. For the woman who is torturously fatigued, who has lost one 10th of her body’s blood supply, who can scarcely pee for the stiches running up her perineum, we will not.


3. The Island Where People Forget to Die
A fascinating story about a Greek Island where people are especially long-lived and where one man, when he went there to die, found that his lung cancer disappeared with no treatment.

Six months came and went. Moraitis didn’t die. Instead, he reaped his garden and, feeling emboldened, cleaned up the family vineyard as well. Easing himself into the island routine, he woke up when he felt like it, worked in the vineyards until midafternoon, made himself lunch and then took a long nap. In the evenings, he often walked to the local tavern, where he played dominoes past midnight. The years passed. His health continued to improve. He added a couple of rooms to his parents’ home so his children could visit. He built up the vineyard until it produced 400 gallons of wine a year. Today, three and a half decades later, he’s 97 years old — according to an official document he disputes; he says he’s 102 — and cancer-free. He never went through chemotherapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort. All he did was move home to Ikaria.

There are some places on earth where people are statistically likely to live much longer than people in other places. Why?

The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot.


4. The Poison Garden
. This just fascinates me. Like something out of a mystery novel.

Its creator, the Duchess of Northumberland said:
‘I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill… I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it and how gruesome and painful the death might be.’

5. 40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World

6. The Science of the Great Molasses Flood

A wave of molasses does not behave like a wave of water. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity depends on the forces applied to it, as measured by shear rate. Consider non-Newtonian fluids such as toothpaste, ketchup and whipped cream. In a stationary bottle, these fluids are thick and goopy and do not shift much if you tilt the container this way and that. When you squeeze or smack the bottle, however, applying stress and increasing the shear rate, the fluids suddenly flow. Because of this physical property, a wave of molasses is even more devastating than a typical tsunami. In 1919 the dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.

I had never heard of non-Newtonian fluids before. How fascinating.

Depending on the way it is made, molasses is between 5,000 to 10,000 times more viscous than water. The Reynolds number for an adult man in water is around one million; the Reynolds number for the same man in molasses is about 130. To make matters worse, a man immersed in molasses will not get anywhere with the kinds of symmetric swimming strokes that would propel him in water. Each repetitive stroke would only undo what was done before. Pulling his arm towards himself would move molasses away from his head, but reaching up to repeat the stroke would push the molasses back where it was before. He would stay in place, like a gnat trapped in tree sap. Even burly men struggled to tread molasses in the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster; horses flailed and brayed, straining to keep their heads aloft and snorting to clear their airways.


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  • So far no. I think the haiku form didn’t quite grab them. Honestly, I really loved this book, but I think I only read it a couple of times. It wasn’t a huge favorite for some reason. Maybe the timing was wrong or something. We will definitely be returning to it later, though.

  • There’s another children’s book you might like—Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by the well-known Chinese-American illustrator Ed Young. The format of the book imitates Japanese books. It’s about a cat named Wabi Sabi who makes a journey to try to understand the ethos that inspired her name, and there is also a haiku on each page, with a written Japanese transcripton of each poem. Really a beautiful book. I got it out of the library for R., because he is having a really hard time accepting the fallenness and imperfection of the phenomenal world. I’m not sure if it helped him, but I really liked the book.

  • You’d like it. Actually I think it is having an effect on R too. He’s talking about various things being “wabi sabi” and seeming to accept them as such.