Suffering and its discontents: Reflections on the Bronze Age Collapse

8 min read

Once upon a time, there was a super-regional trade network of specialized economies that supported widespread prosperity and prolific innovation and creative output.  Then the climate shifted abruptly to cause drought and plummeting agricultural yields, stateless marauders suddenly appeared on the scene, and a sequence of earthquakes crumbled cities along a major fault line.  In less than one century, trade routes were severed, wealthy cities burned to the ground and were permanently abandoned, powerful governments dissolved, and refugee populations wandered the region. 

That was the Bronze Age Collapse of ~1225 to~1125 BCE.  Civilization around the Mediterranean and Near East fell abruptly into a Dark Age of scarcity and bloodshed, from which it took 200 to 500 years to recover, depending on the particular region.

Societies are known to have survived acute droughts and famines in the past.  Societies have survived foreign invasions.  Societies have survived devastating earthquakes. 

But not all at once.  

All together you get one of the largest-scale social system collapses in the history of humanity.  Scholars suggest it was at least as dramatic as the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequent European Dark Ages. 

On an individual scale, we can also note that people have been known to survive losing a loved one.  People have survived being financially wiped out.  People have survived losing a home, or being displaced from their homeland. People have survived the cruelty of being excommunicated from their family, or the isolation of being suddenly ostracized from a social circle.  People have survived job loss, being shut out of their career, and thorny legal entanglements.

But not all at once.

All together you get the hyperbolic trials of Job – an evisceration of life so improbably comprehensive that it only exists in Biblical folklore to make a dramatically unsubtle point about the inscrutability of innocent suffering.

A recap of the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job, written ~400-~350 BCE in Jerusalem:

  1. A man named Job loses everything at once: his children, his livestock and human slaves, his health.
  2. Smug “friends” of Job flail around for an explanation. They themselves have never suffered as comprehensively and profoundly as Job. They self-servingly say it must all be morally deserved suffering.  But the text has gone to great pains to impress upon the reader that poor Job is impeccably righteous and undeserving of any punishment whatsoever.
  3. Job is left bewildered by the false accusations of the self-satisfied bystanders. Since there’s no afterlife (the Hebrews didn’t believe in one), he doesn’t even get some lame platitude about posthumous scale-balancing in which to take meager comfort.  (Hellenistic mystery cults will shortly invent the theological platitude of individual salvation and afterlife.  A sect of apocalyptic Judaism will then re-brand the idea as “Christianity”.)
  4. God never answers the question of why Job suffers. He unsatisfyingly says (in a later interpolation appended to redeem the otherwise atheist-sounding text) to shut up and not complain or wonder about suffering.

What’s obvious to the contemporary reader is that it’s all random.  There is no deity meting out good and bad fortune.  Fortune is fortune.  That’s why we call it fortune.  If life circumstances are coin flips, and the 4th century BCE Judean village is a handful of coins, then some poor villager will end up with a “suspicious” run of 100 tails.  A pre-scientific village practicing immature ancient theism will understandably flail around for supernatural explanations of something that any statistician knows was expected.  The gaps of human understanding in which their god(s) abide will shrink over the next two millennia, until science obviates the psychological drive to posit a creator.  We now have a causal model of the world that accounts for all of the data — including the extreme outliers like Job, whom religion never succeeded in satisfactorily explaining.

Below is a list of 25 types of life tragedy.  How many have hit you… and simultaneously?  Just one can cause depression.  Most any two officially constitute childhood adversity.  Three or four is plenty for a memoir and motivational speaker gig.  

Simultaneous Life Tragedies Checklist

X Death or disappearance of spouse X Unwanted legal divorce proceeding
X Loss of sibling X Legal bankruptcy proceeding
X Loss of parent(s) X Criminal or civil legal proceedings
O Loss of child O Enslavement or false conviction and incarceration
O Loss of pet X Acute cash flow strain
X Homelessness X Major unrecoverable property loss
X Forced geographic displacement X Complete financial wipe-out ($0 savings+$0 retirement+$0 income+$0 assets+$0 credit capacity+ high nondischargeable liabilities)
X Victim of violence or other crime X Loss of personal safety and security
X Emotional trauma / diagnosed PTSD X Loss of social circle
O Serious physical health problem onset or terminal diagnosis X Unexpected job loss
O Mental illness onset X Permanent loss of career
O Catastrophic injury or permanent disability X Loss of professional network to build new career
X Loss of ability to ever have children    

[Notice that “relationship breakup” doesn’t even make the above list.  And “acute cash flow strain” is only on there so that people with mild problems won’t check “complete financial wipe-out”.  Getting dumped by a boy/girlfriend and having trouble paying off your credit card balance are an order of magnitude less traumatic than losing a spouse or being completely wiped out. Failing to see that is a Type I fallacy, see below.]

In the space of 1 ½ years, I experienced nineteen of these twenty-five types of life tragedy.  Most were clustered in a period of four months.

In that period of time, I unexpectedly lost my beloved husband, my parents and only sibling, and my ability to ever fulfill my dream of having children. I was rendered homeless in my hometown and then lost my autonomy as a refugee in someone else’s.  They eviscerated my social network and professional network, ended my career and the business I had been building, and put me in a position where many years later I’ve been as yet unable to resurrect a prior career.  Within that short timeframe, I was the victim of violence, revenge porn, hacking and online impersonation, and SWATing. Overnight, I was left with no income, assets, or savings. For a long time, I was sometimes hungry. I began waking up screaming at night, which abated three years later.

There are certainly worse things that could have happened to me, which aren’t checked off above.  My floor isn’t by any means the bottom of the pit of human suffering.  The onslaught wasn’t accompanied by a catastrophic accident that permanently disabled me.  Unlike my ex-husband, I don’t have a mental illness.  Though my physical health was adversely affected by the turmoil, I wasn’t diagnosed with an incapacitating or terminal illness.  In the aftermath, I lost the power of free choice in unspeakably soul-crushing ways; but, I wasn’t falsely convicted and incarcerated for a crime.  And, I am not dead. 

Most of all, I saved my beloved puppy.  That has been everything — the fulcrum of restoration, my orienting purpose and incentive to persevere.  Six years on, the social isolation continues, due to my far-from-recovered economic circumstances.  And, as my now-aging dog’s health fails, the remnant heartlessly pulls away.

You who callously and inaccurately relativize others’ suffering by saying that “everyone has problems”… you who flippantly dismiss pleas for help and blame victims in order to maintain the fragile plausibility of your personal narrative of meritocracy…you who pay lip service to lofty liberal activism, but refuse help to a friend facing existential risk at home…you whose preoccupation with one or two personal setbacks displaces your capacity for empathy… You are the “friends” of Job.  

Most people — because they have checked “only” two or three boxes at once and were leveled by it — cling to a worldview that life is supposed to be fair and pleasant.  Theistic language or not, that is what they believe and express.  Their words reflect faith in mean reversion and a vague expectation that overwhelming suffering resolves eventually in compensatory hidden benefits and fairness.

People have four options for response to a friend’s suffering.  (See table below.)  It is a rare person who can acknowledge the non-relativism of unjust suffering around them, and can accept that it just is….and then can join me in finding contentment in such a world (Type IV).  I have learned to avoid people who refuse to acknowledge my experience (Type I), who reductively blame the victim (Type II), or whose price of acknowledging my experience is their unwelcome, projected darkness and stultifying pity (Type III).  Die Sonne scheint noch.

Typology of Responses to Suffering

(Click on table image below to open larger in a new tab)

Typology of Responses to Suffering

The Bronze Age Collapse metaphor extends thusly:  In the power vacuum that was created by armageddon in the early 12th century BCE Mediterranean and Near East, new civilizations took root.  People could no longer make bronze, because copper and tin deposits in the Near East are separated from one another by 2,000 miles.  Such a concentrated, vulnerable supply chain broke as soon as anarchy cut off the trade route.  So, people turned to harder-to-smelt but readily-available, single-ingredient iron…and then carbon-tainted iron (a.k.a. steel) — which enabled lighter, sharper, stronger objects that greatly extended human power.  Though causality is speculative, we soon got phonetic alphabets, re-imaginations of a transcendent Ultimate, and democracy.  A long half-millennium after a precipitous one-century collapse, global social development measures recovered.

Of course, we can’t know what would have happened without that tablet-wiping catastrophe.  (This goes also for the late 5thc CE fall of Roman Empire, and the 14th c CE halving of European population due to plague.)  The Bronze Age Collapse made warfare ubiquitous, which advantaged the physiologically stronger gender, which invited loss of women’s social status, which we see in archaeological evidence of societies around this time ceasing to feed women meat and no longer burying them with the nifty artifacts that accompany male corpses.  It turns out that women haven’t always been so maligned and oppressed, and gender equality changes haven’t been monotonically positive over the 100,000 years of homo sapiens existence.  It seems that the Bronze Age Collapse may have set back not only social development several centuries but disproportionately knocked women back in a way that takes much longer to recover.  Social status collapse is stickier than economic collapse.

Nonetheless, today’s liberal historicism makes a temporally- and culturally-biased argument that the miserable and bloody 12thc BCE Bronze Age Collapse was, centuries later, ultimately “beneficial” in the imagined “arc” of deterministic history.  And so the theory is that something “better” can also eventually, after some number of years, come out of the 21stc CE evisceration of my own life.

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