Last week marked the 50th anniversary (March 1, 1973) of the release of the album Dark Side of the Moon. This prompted me to listen again to some classic Pink Floyd, stopping particularly on the song Comfortably Numb from the band’s later album (released in 1979), The Wall.
Band member Roger Waters conceived The Wall as a narrative rock opera that would highlight his anti-authority reflexes, from schoolmasters to heads of state and that he would perform against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall itself. In an interview released in the 80s, Waters said that much of the song comes from something that actually happened: before a show, a doctor had given him a sedative for a severe stomachache, but on-stage Waters’ hands became numb and his vision blurred. Whatever the original incident, the lyrics helped define the disaffection of a generation.
Rock critic Ilaria Argenini in Auralcrave, says this about the selection, Comfortably Numb, “The main theme is the distance between our minds and the perception of reality because of artificial relief. In other words, we may not suffer, but that does not make us alive; escaping from life and its problems actually deprives us of something. This is the meaning of the song: life is out there; I prefer to face it and let it hurt me, than lose all sense of feeling [emphasis hers]. Depression, in Comfortably Numb, is just a grey waiting room, where everything is reminiscent of death. The absence of pain is not happiness. The doctor in the lyrics takes away the pain to get the show going, but it doesn’t work. It only increases the distance (between the band and the audience).”
Christians are currently in the season of Lent when, historically, believers are called to “give up something” in order to become more empathetic with Jesus’ suffering on his journey to Jerusalem where his crucifixion led to death and, ultimately, to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. One of my heroes in seminary (and still) was the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he rails against what he calls “cheap grace” which is to accept that since everything is forgiven, you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness. However, the defect in this theology lies in the absence of demanding a cost in discipleship which inevitably involves self-sacrifice and suffering. Indeed, Bonhoeffer was executed for plotting to assassinate Hitler—a very costly expression of grace, indeed.
For Christians, Lent implies that suffering has a cleansing power for the soul—that if we do not suffer, we cannot be fully faithful. Life is, indeed, filled with suffering on both the personal level—isolation, addiction, grief, guilt and societally—racism, economic inequities, all manner of exclusion due to xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and classism as well as malevolent behavior between and within nation states (Ukraine, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria).
To be faithful, we are also called to work towards alleviating suffering. Hence, we are confronted by one of life’s great paradoxes: to be fully human, we need to work diligently towards alleviating the suffering of others while acknowledging that if suffering is eliminated altogether, one becomes less fully human—comfortably numb—thereby reducing the capacity for empathy and contributing—even indirectly—to the world’s pain.
Yet, we have developed anesthetizing mechanisms to alleviate suffering in a variety of ways. Books are banned in our classrooms if they might trigger discomfort; we retreat into our social media silos to avoid having uncomfortable conversations; medication is promoted on the basis of blocking all manner of physical and emotional distress.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, Ross Douthat enumerates ways that we seek “The Return of the Magicians” and how we tie recent fascinations—A.I., U.F.O phenomena, medicinal use of hallucinogens—to help us better understand our search for meaning. “We don’t really understand our own consciousness, we haven’t even begun to solve the so-called hard problem of the mind and its relationship to matter. Yet here we are telling ourselves, in hope and also fear, that these machines whose workings we don’t fully understand might make the leap to self-awareness if only we keep making their processes more sophisticated, more beyond our ken.”
And in this eventful week, we are again confronted by news out of Ukraine and the seeming throwback to horrific suffering of trench warfare during World War I. As we contrast our efforts to avoid pain and suffering here in the US with the sacrifices made by Ukrainians, the concluding words of the important article in The Free Press by Katherine Boyle, entitled “Get Serious About Suffering” strike a helpful chord: “We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?”
Discerning answers to these questions is a vital exercise for each of us to avoid becoming comfortably numb to both the yearnings deep within our hearts and the pain of those with whom we engage every day.