Pain and palliatives: examining the human condition


This past Monday night, the University of San Diego hosted the book launch of Dr. Brian Clack’s, “Love, Drugs, Art, Religion: The consolations of human existence.” Clack, a philosophy professor at USD, published the book earlier this year and was able to speak to a standing-room only crowd of students and faculty regarding the main themes and topics in his book.

“The book is about the difficulties of the human condition, the pain and suffering of human life, and the strategies employed by humans to cope with the suffering,” Clack said during the presentation.

The burning question of how humans deal with life’s inevitable hardships was of particular interest to philosopher Sigmund Freud, who Clack largely credits as the inspiration for the book. Freud’s belief that life is naturally very hard and extremely painful for everyone is highlighted in his treasured work, “Civilization and its Discontents.”

“Life as we find it is too hard for us. It brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks,” said Freud. “In order to bear it, we can’t but dispense with palliative measures.”

The choice of the word “palliative” is an intentionally provocative one, as Clack explains, because it suggests human’s innate desire for coping mechanisms rather than a way to solve their actual problems.

“Palliative care is the care that you give to patients who are dying,” Clack said. “You cannot cure them. So all you do is you try to make them comfortable.”

Outlined in Clack’s title and theorized by Freud years ago, the four primary ways that humans seek comfort are with love, drugs, art and religion. While each one acts in a different way, they collectively make up the palliative measures that humans seek for temporary pleasure and relief. Within the book, Clack describes the consolations and complications that can arise from each palliative, especially with regards to religion and the way in which religious beliefs function for humans.
“For people who have a religious faith it gives them an enormous amount of consolation,” Clack said. “That you will be reunited with those you lost. That any sufferings you have in this life will be compensated for in the afterlife. That there’s someone watching over you.”

He is quick to point out, though, that Freud viewed religion in a much more problematic manner. He saw religion as a door to becoming credulous towards anything, stating that if people could believe some of the fundamental parts of religion, then they could believe anything.

Aside from religion, Clack also investigates the problems with relying on drugs or love to find comfort, noting that art is much more mild and therefore does not generally bring about pain.

“With the exception of art, the other ones have enormous problems,” Clack said. “Drug use is the obvious one because people can become chronically intoxicated. Love, according to Freud, is a very high-risk strategy. You’re never so vulnerable as when you love, because your happiness is tied to someone else.”

Whether it is in love or everyday life, almost everyone can relate to experiencing pain in their lives. The fact that the talk was so crowded is a testament to that idea, attracting faculty and students from all disciplines. Junior Miles Parnegg, one of Clack’s students who attended the lecture, believes that students should have no issues connecting to the themes in the talk.

“It makes us reflect on where we seek pleasure and relief from the demands and stresses of everyday life,” Parnegg said. “Especially as students where the workload is significant and oftentimes overwhelming, Clack’s research explores where we then turn to in order to avoid the inevitable anxieties over failure, rejection, or loneliness–or rather, where we look to temporarily alleviate the suffering.”

Clack’s discussion opened up the opportunity for students to think and talk about issues that do not often get discussed, particularly the struggles that people face. For those who wish to dive deeper into the questions surrounding life, Clack’s book offers an in-depth analysis of the human condition that anyone can relate to. Copies can be found on Amazon and in the Torero Store.