In Praise of suffering

The author engaged in a moment of keen insight and understanding.

Knowledge by suffering entereth,
and life is perfected by death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A Vision of Poets

Often we recoil from suffering. We seek to eliminate it from our lives through elimination of risks, by taking opiates, and avoidance. While we should continually seek to eliminate suffering and its causes in this world, we cannot eliminate it entirely. Rather we must acknowledge its inevitability and use it to make us stronger, more compassionate, and more noble.

Suffering molds character and forges inner strength. As Victor Frankl wrote:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunities, even under the most difficult circumstances, to add a deeper meaning to his life.

Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 67-68, Beacon Press 2006.

Our literature and religious texts repeat this theme. In Christian theology, Jesus fasts in the desert forty days and forty nights before he faces temptation from Satan. He survives the temptation to give the great Sermon on the Mount and attract multitudes to his ministry. Similarly, Prince Siddhartha sat under the bodhi tree without moving for forty-nine days, after which he became the Buddha and reached enlightenment.

In the past century, both Anwar Sadat and Nelson Mandela spent time in prison before emerging as leaders of their countries and spokesmen for peace.

Suffering brings empathy for others that suffer and brings confidence and resilience to those that survive it. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning suggests in the opening quote, suffering teaches and improves us, even in death. We admire most those who have endured the ultimate sacrifice and given their own lives for others.

Suffering also drives us onward providing motivation in the face of adversity. As Nietzsche observed in the 1800’s:

When I start thinking of the craving to do something, which continually tickles and spurs those millions of young Europeans who cannot endure their boredom and themselves, then I realize that they must have a craving to suffer and to find in their suffering a probable reason for action, for deeds.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One, Chapter 56, Trans. Walter Kaufman, Vintage Books 1974.

How many artists created their masterpieces driven by the unrequited love of a paramour? How many great inventions of science and medicine have been born from blood and battle?

I have used suffering as a motivator in my own life. As a young man, if I suffered a set back, I would read more, exercise more and try to better myself. These habits helped me progress from earning a 1.8 my first semester in college to graduating cum laude from law school, earning best papers in three classes, and serving on the law review.

Later, when I failed to make partner at the elite defense firm I left thirteen years ago, I wallowed in self-pity for a few days and then realized that the creator had better equipped me to represent the injured, powerless, and cheated. I applied myself to learning to become a plaintiff’s lawyer and know that I have been fulfilling my purpose and making the lives of my clients better.

Suffering also allows us to truly appreciate beauty and pleasure. The Epicureans have been vilified by history as seeking lives of unadulterated pleasure. In reality, they led very austere lives and sought to appreciate the simple pleasures. Nietzsche says of Epicurus:

Whenever I hear or read of him, I enjoy the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity. I see his eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across the rocks of the shore that are bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this light, as secure and calm as the light and his eyes. Such happiness could only be invented by a man who was suffering continually. It is the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea.

Nietzche, The Gay Science at Book One, Chapter 45.

Victor Frankl, in an awe-inspiring account, describes vividly his own experience after being released from Auschwitz:

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing by the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space, I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky–and then I went down on my knees. At that moment, there was very little I knew of myself or of the world–I had one sentence in mind–always the same: ” I called upon the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”

Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning at 89. Put simply, we often take beauty and pleasure for granted, walking through our sterilized lives. Often we cannot see the majesty, radiance, and magnificence of nature and humanity until we suffer. As Poison once sang, “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.

Finally, suffering can make our bodies stronger. Turn on the Crossfit games, or watch an Ironman event and you can witness first hand the result of thousands of hours of difficult, grueling practice. As Nassim Taleb writes in his book Antifragile, physical stressors provide information to our bodies which signal the need for growth. Taleb recounts his own strength gains from his simple workout of deadlifting the heaviest weight he can every week. He also points out that cultures who carry baskets on their heads have better posture. While Taleb certainly is no health writer, his point is simple: by subjecting our bodies to various stressors, we can make them stronger. (In Antifragile, Taleb expands upon this principle and applies it to financial systems).

We know that lifting weights not only causes muscle growth, but increases bone density. Many of the symptoms that we associate with aging actually result from our reduction of the stressors that we put on our bodies under the false belief that because we are getting older we should “take it easy” and not tax our joints and muscles. Untrue! A quick search of the internet yields numerous stories of seventy and eighty year olds deadlifting hundreds of pounds. As a result, weight training can reverse much of the decline we associate with aging.

How can we apply these lessons to live richer lives? Seneca once advised:

set aside now and then and number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of foods, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing and ask yourself “Is this what one used to dread?” It is in time of security that the spirit should be preparing to deal with difficult times.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XVIII, Penguin Classics 2014.

You do not have to wear a skimpy toga and survive on bread and water to put this into action. Simply incorporate difficulty and challenge into your life. Take a cold shower or ice bath (for the truly tough), lift heavy weights, fast occasionally, wake up early. Get used to doing things that make you uncomfortable and challenge you. And remember as Robert Plant sings in The Rain Song, “into every life a little rain must fall.” It is up to you what you do with it.

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