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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

The Upside of Pain and the Imperatives of Privilege

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Tonight, I saw American Graffiti for the first time. I had heard of the film over the years and have always been intrigued by George Lucas’s two pre-Star Wars films (THX 1138 being the other) but had seen neither.

I was quite taken with the film. Aside from its obvious aesthetic quality, I was fascinated by the concept of cruising and the free and loose social scene of Modesto, California in the late 60s. Was there really a time when a teenage girl could jump into the car of a teenage boy with only a joking reference to how dangerous that could be? When a young man could enter a darkened radio station and warmly welcomed by a stranger? Was that a real reflection of the time or a light fiction for even that many decades ago? As someone born in the 80s, I suppose I’ll have to ask my parents.

After the movie, I pulled up the Wikipedia article to better understand its significance. Again, I’ve heard actors and directors reference American Graffiti as a significant inspiration, but why? Tonight, I found learned what the American New Wave movement or period was (or New Hollywood or The Hollywood Renaissance). I learned that some of my favorite movies fall into this period: Cool Hands Luke, In the Heat of the Night, The Sting, Rocky, Being There, early Spielberg.

As a child of the 90s, I didn’t watch a lot of films from the mid-60s to the early 80s. There was a lot of Disney and Touchstone, which oddly enough released its first film just about exactly after the ANW is considered to have ended. Fortunately, my father, who grew up in the 60s and early 70s, and who was an aspiring playwright in high school, exposed me to all of those films mentioned above. As far as I can tell, his artistic intellect is stirred most by abstract, absurdist, and existentialist works.

(When I put all those films together and saw them through the lens of this period, the first thing I thought of was surprising and frankly quite odd. It was the sound quality in these films. The sound effects in the 60s and 70s are too loud and too crisp. Everything shuffles: smooth-bottomed shoes shuffling against dusty pavement, paper ruffling, fingers punching computer buttons and pulling down on rotary telephone dials. But this is true of all films of this period and not just ANW films. What’s Up, Doc? and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory come to mind.)


It’s not surprising that two suburban, middle class, happily religious kids with emotionally stable childhoods (my father and myself) would be drawn to films that express an existential ennui or nihilism I (speaking for myself) have never personally felt in real life. Such forays into foreign experiences are mind-stretching and empathy-inducing.

But it’s hard not to assume that such a detached fascination is clearly a mark of privilege. If you escape normal life by experiencing vicarious existential ennui, isn’t that a kind of temporary experiential appropriation, similar to how, as Burr says in Hamilton, “there’s nothing rich folks love more than going downtown and slumming it with the poor?” All the glamor but none of the harsh reality.

If the vicarious pain you feel by watching pain portrayed on screen or on stage is cathartic because you haven't experienced it rather than because you have, you have it good (with regard to that specific branch of human suffering). This is similar to how sports allow us to express aggression and competition without the killing and dying that comes with war and fighting.

I suppose inherited privilege isn't something to be ashamed of. But I do strongly believe two imperatives, which I'm trying to improve.

First, if you have privilege in any area, it's very important to be aware of it and acknowledge that it gives you an advantage that others don't enjoy. Perhaps part of the reason you perform better than others in certain areas is because you were given a head start. Perhaps part of the reason someone performs poorly in certain areas is because they were given a slow start. This deliberate perspective takes humility and empathy, qualities not highly vaunted in a society that celebrates pride and self-centeredness.

Second, if you have privilege in any area, I believe you have an ethical responsibility to use that privilege to help people who don't have it and, if possible, to bestow that privilege on others. This may include voting for legislation that ensures the safety and fair treatment of all citizens in your country. It may include being a mentor or big sister or brother to someone who didn't have that growing up. It may include teaching a skill or principle you've benefited from knowing.


Regarding that last example, about a year ago, I wrote an article on Medium called "How to Quiet That Negative Voice in Your Head." I felt compelled to write it, a kind of urgency because I knew that so many people live constantly under the thumb of their own mind. I know how that feels, but I'd recently had a profound realization that had significantly diminished the frequency and volume of the negative voice in my head and I wanted desperately to share that relief with as many people as I could reach.

As of this writing, only 183 people have viewed, much less read, the article. (So if you know someone who would benefit from its message, please share it with them!) I don't exactly have the attention of thousands of readers. But a week or so after I published the article, my wife received a message on Facebook from an old high school friend. She said her therapist had recommended an article to her by someone with a familiar last name. She looked up the author online and, lo and behold, it was the husband of her old high school friend.

She told my wife that the message of the article resonated with and helped her. I was stunned that a therapist would share something I wrote with a client. And what a strange and joyful thrill that some friend-of-a-wife suffers a little less because I put in a bit of effort to write down what I had learned through having the same challenge and put it somewhere where a few people might find it.

This validated a belief I've long held, one that gives meaning to my suffering: We experience pain and trials so that, among other reasons, we can be a guide to others who experience them. The statement that gave me this perspective on trials was written by the apostle and missionary Paul as recorded in Romans 5: "but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; / And patience, experience; and experience, hope."

Here's my interpretation: "We rejoice in tribulations, knowing that tribulation develops our patience, and patiently enduring tribulation (rather than trying to disengage from it) provides us with life experience, and our life experiences furnish us with a hope and confidence that we can endure future tribulations."

If we patiently endure our painful experiences and don't run away from them, we will not just feel pain; we will understand it. Then, when we encounter someone who is in the midst of that same pain, we can be an understanding shoulder to cry on as well as a teacher and guide on how to get through it. We can because we have been there and know the way.

The Facebook message my wife received reinforced a truth I'm still trying to learn and move myself to act on: There are fellow human beings out there who need specific wisdom to get through their difficulties. Wisdom that we've already acquired. Wisdom we're now privileged to possess. If we can find a way to pass that privilege on to them, their suffering will be lessened, and, as I can attest, our joy will be increased.

Every religion, every spiritual path, issues the imperative to relieve the suffering of the under-privileged. Having privilege isn't something to feel guilty about unless we hoard it for ourselves and our own kind. Seen properly, humbly, empathetically, privilege is a call to the adventure of sharing it with fellow human beings who need it.

We can't put our full time, attention, and resources behind every worthy cause in this challenged world. But perhaps a good place to start is to identify a privilege we have and find or invent a way to use it to help those who don't have quite as much of it.

Thanks for reading.

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