On Suffering

Nietzsche criticized those who wished to abolish suffering. As an outcast who lived by himself in a small cabin and died alone, he likely knew suffering well. But this does not mean he was necessarily unhappy with his life. Suffering, according to Nietzsche, was what made life beautiful and, ironically, enjoyable. In a form of philosophical judo reminiscent of Alan Watts’ ‘law of reversed effect’, it is through embracing rather than refusing suffering, that we can come to appreciate, and perhaps more precisely locate, those things in life which truly bring us joy.

As Watts was keen to remind his listeners, once cannot have black without white, foreground without background, self without other, and, as Nietzsche would add, joy without suffering. Suffering is not simply a feature of life that bring joy into focus, it is its counterpart. They are inextricably bound to each other, existing as two sides of the same process. To press the point just a little further, waves must have crests and troughs, ranges must have hills and valleys, and experience must have joy and suffering. It was from this perspective that Nietzsche wrote, not with misanthropy, but with love,

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished…

Because it is these very experiences that bring the joys of life into focus. Nietzsche thought of life as climbing a mountain and that as one climbs higher, the muscles tighten, the air thins, the lungs wheeze, the body strains and struggles under physical exertion; but the view from the top is more exceptional, extraordinary, and captivating then if we had remained at the summit.

Unfortunately, it is part of our cultural conditioning to deny this suffering, and in turn, the greater joys it brings. We inwardly cry ‘make it stop’ and use whatever means at our disposal to mute our internal screams. We may turn to drinking, drug taking, distraction, or numbing, but as we all know, this only adds a second arrow of suffering to the first.

Echoing Nietzsche, Simone Weil remarked that rather than denying our suffering and therefore compounding it, we must embrace and acknowledge it. As with suffering,

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, feat and everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever…to make of us in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting intellectual discipline upon oneself.

It is through suffering that we gain insight into joy. If you wish to befriend one, you must befriend the other. Nietzsche noted, ‘whoever wanted to learn to jubilate up to the heavens, would also have to be prepared for depression unto death’. Of course, nobody wants to go to hell, but it appears that, as Watts remarked, if we are to have intense pleasures, we must also have intense pains. The other option, it appears, would be to minimise displeasure as much as possible, but in the process, minimise all pleasures too. I won’t tell you how to live, it is ultimately up to you to decide if the view from the peak is worth the climb from the summit. But life includes suffering as well as joy, and embracing this fact, rather than running away from it, will lead to a more richly textured and fully human life.

Suffering is valuable for the insight it can (but by no means neccasarily) provide. For all our powers of abtract reasoning and investigation, we are similarly adept at, if not consciously repressing, than ignoring the parts of our selves that require attention. In a stream that runs smoothly, the sediment slowly falls and remains seated on the bed. But suffering functions like a sudden rush, a storm, that dislodges the sediment and throws it back into the stream and while murkying the waters, reveals what was always there, but was too still and submerged to be noticed. Suffering can, for perhaps the first time in a long time, shake us from our stupor and bring to our attention what was previously unnoticed. While not guaranteed, it provides an opportunity, if properly handled, for growth. It does not mean we will no longer suffer, but it does mean we can grow. And while it will still hurt, some solace and comfort can be found in the fact that suffering is not inherently evil, and can provide a springboard for us to transform into more authentic versions of ourselves.

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