An entertaining YouTube video called “STUNG by a BULLET ANT” has gone viral: Its popularity is a symptom of a civilization that does not know what to do with pain.
In the video a brave young man–Coyote Peterson from the Brave Wilderness Channel on YouTube–undergoes tests of pain tolerance by seeking out ants that cause progressively more painful stings; these tests of nerve finally culminate in the horrific sting of the bullet ant, an ant which–you’ve guessed it–stings so painfully it feels as if a bullet has struck you. Peterson takes on the role of a scientist (giving us details about the creatures) and an adventurer (who spends days in the jungle looking for the elusive bullet ant which will carry out the sensational sting). Of course, after each sting, he is very gentle with the ants and places them back with their companions in the ant colony. Peterson offers this explanation in theguardian:
“If I were to just take a bullet ant and let it walk around on my arm or look at it in a glass capsule you’d have more people saying: ‘Ah, that was interesting, but it would have been a lot more interesting if you’d let it sting you’, because that at the end of the day is what people really want to see and we’re aware of that,” he said.
“At the end of the day what we’re really hoping is these extreme episodes bring in the audience that then does find the episodes that are more conservation-based.”
So Peterson pulls people in with self-inflicted violence, so that he can teach people to interact more responsibly with the environment. The violence is a manipulative means to his end and caters to a voyeuristic audience’s thirst for spectacle.
I was both riveted by and revolted by the video, just as one might be when passing a massive car wreck on the freeway. The video has had over 17 million views in YouTube already; Peterson’s earlier videos after two years have had 525 million views. Pain is entertaining.
Interestingly, the pre-Christian culture of the Satere-Mawe tribe has had a custom of having boys undergo stings by multiple bullet ants in order to reach the status of manhood and to earn the designation of warrior.( Scroll down a bit on this link to access a video about it.)
In American society, we seem to have contradictory approaches to pain.
On the one hand, many people respect the ability to tolerate pain. We have Stoic elements in our own society. Complaining about every little thing is frowned upon. Consequently, there are comments on Peterson’s video such as the following: ‘And yet. He still didn’t swear.” And “I like how he teaches us while he’s in severe pain.” And “Wow he never once cussed wow.”
On the other hand, many Americans can’t tolerate even a small headache; they take Tylenol for it. They go to Pain Management clinics. They can’t tolerate boredom: they need to see movies repeatedly and watch sports nonstop for stimulation. They can’t bear the pain of abuse and loneliness and despair–or boredom–and thus get addicted to drugs (or the Internet or video games) to anesthetize themselves. Academic and professional accomplishments are cut short because self-discipline is too difficult. Many go so far as to kill the unborn either to prevent a life of suffering for the children or to prevent a life of suffering for their mothers. Finally, American culture is heading more and more toward legalizing assisted suicide–and euthanasia–so that people can shorten anyone’s painful life at will. Pain and suffering is verboten.
I think part of the attraction to Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, in the United States, is because of its purported cure for suffering: Life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the cure for suffering is the eradication of desire; and the Noble Eightfold Path is the method of erasing desire and, therefore, suffering.
Christianity’s sales pitch does not involve getting rid of suffering. The Cross is the corner stone which is at once the stumbling block–a stumbling block because it is hard to accept a Cross!
But the Cross involves meaningful suffering. It’s meaningful because Jesus’ death on the Cross serves as the paradigm for our suffering. When we intentionally unite our sufferings with Him through an act of will, we offer our sufferings up–sufferings patiently borne–for the good of our souls–as reparation for sin–and as reparation for the sins of others, in this way helping the spiritual state of all the people of the world.
In the Catholic Church, there is even discussion of “victim souls” willing to suffer to any extent God desires to carry out God’s work of reparation and redemption. Some of these victim souls develop the stigmata, i.e., bleeding wounds in the hands, feet, and side, in the very locations in which Jesus was wounded. The Sunday Visitor sums up the approach to the suffering of victim souls and of Catholics with a more ordinary calling thus: “We can accept the pain and suffering of this life with patience and love for the intentions and benefit of ourselves and others in the Communion of Saints.”
Although Catholicism stresses that our personal suffering is to be borne well for spiritual benefit, we are not at all to be indifferent to the suffering of others. On the contrary: we are to be compassionate toward the pain of others: we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the sick, visit the imprisoned, teach the ignorant, give hope to the despairing, and more . As Mother Theresa says, we are to treat other people in the way we would be treating Jesus himself–with love. Such complete outpouring of our love involves suffering on our part–meaningful suffering.
Suffering is not meaningful when we purposefully inflict pain on ourselves for attention or for thrills in risky, daredevil stunts. Aristotle tells us in the Nicomachean Ethics that the virtuous person deals with pleasure and pain appropriately–and for Aristotle that means rationally. Reason alone should tell us the stunt with the ants (or similar such deeds) do not suit us as rational human beings. We should aspire to nobler deeds.
The popularity of a manipulative approach to pain tells us something:
It is an indication that our society does not know what to do with pain.