Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Suffering, it's so good for you

We do all admire people who wear their emotional courage like a badge. Illustration / Anna Crichton
We do all admire people who wear their emotional courage like a badge. Illustration / Anna Crichton

We all have losses we don't want to look at, and hurt we would prefer to suppress

I am a bee-atch. I was extremely rude to a very nice woman at a Christmas party this week. I basically said that because she was in a tidy nuclear family situation and lived in smug Parnell, she didn't really have a right to have a view about anything.

It's the pain theory. You know those people who have tidy lives, who don't wake up in the night with unnamed dread, don't feel mad and otherworldly as hell, and can carry on serious conversations about what temperature to keep their swimming pool.

Those people, bless them, are welcome to enjoy their illusions and their DIY projects and their skiing holidays. I hope they enjoy them; I just used to secretly think they didn't have a right to have their opinions about anything taken seriously because they hadn't suffered enough to be listened to. Whereas I am the smug judgmental one, thinking people who care about designer outdoor furniture have no soul.

But face it, we do all admire people who wear their emotional courage like a badge. That's why potential Labour leader David Cunliffe can't compete with David Shearer. Shearer, who worked in aid in Africa, has the glow of vicarious suffering. Suffering makes people different, hence the fad for misery memoirs.

Billionaire Ted Forstmann, who died last month, grew up with an abusive father who came after him with an axe and broke his mother's finger at the dinner table. He built an empire as a result. "I see things that other people don't see. I really do," Forstmann told Vanity Fair.

Economic pain is just the same as any kind of pain. None of us want to feel it. We will do anything we can to avoid it. That is what we are doing wrong. Power and energy and a sense of accomplishment comes from facing up to pain instead of running away. "They don't know how to suffer," Ernesto Zedillo, the former Mexican President, has said of southern Europe, now facing crises similar to those Latin America has been through, and possibly worse-placed to stomach tough adjustment programmes.

The profound insight is that avoiding loss and pain actually compounds it. Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who wrote the best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow, has investigated the idea of "loss aversion". He uses the example of rogue traders and their desperate scramble to avoid losses at all costs which sees them keep doubling up and getting into a bigger and bigger hole. What drives these crazy gamblers is their inability to accept loss. They can't accept a small loss, they struggle to avoid it and end up turning it into a bigger one. We are not all rogue traders but we all have our blind spots - losses we don't want to look at and hurt we would prefer to suppress. The sustainability of our welfare system, for one thing.

Being able to face up to pain takes back control. Disgraced IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said this week he had never been able to deny himself a moment's pleasure in his life. He headed the world's major financial body and preached fiscal restraint. Look where he ended up. But being able to face losses and pain should make one a more compassionate person. Not a bee-atch. I'm working on that.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton:

- NZ Herald

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