In the art on the walls of my childhood home, the theme of suffering was pervasive: crosses with sculptures of hanging, tortured Christs, Marys with torn and bleeding hearts, saints in various imploring poses, as if pleading for relief from the awful plight of living in this world. Suffering also popped up regularly as key to understanding reality. Why do the good and the innocent suffer as well as the wicked? Well, the wicked suffer because they are being punished, of course, but the good and the innocent suffer because they are loved, because it provides a God-given opportunity to conquer it and become even better in the conquering. So to better our characters, us kids were required to endure some sort of self-inflicted suffering from time to time, however mild: to give up candy during Lent, or or to spend an uncomfortably long time on our knees reciting rosaries. This view of suffering was held by many cultures throughout history (remember the Spartans?), and became common in modern Western societies through Christian influence. Suffering, regarded as both the indicator of and the creator of goodness in the world, and eventually became something to be desired and admired for its own sake. It became fetishized. As I grew and began to puzzle over the matter, this glorification of suffering seemed more and more strange, especially as I observed that, while suffering appears to strengthen and nobilify some, many more people tend to be broken down by it, especially if it’s pervasive in their lives, and rendered more desperate, less empathetic, less hopeful, less dignified, more scarred. I began to wonder if, on the whole, it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.
So why do so many people so often glorify such a seemingly nasty thing as suffering? Well, for one thing, a beloved philosophy professor of mine pointed out once, there’s a distinct difference between suffering of the constructive sort and suffering of the destructive sort. There should be separate terms for different sorts of suffering as there is in ancient Greek. If there was a separate discussion concerning each kind, many of my objections to the fetishization of suffering should be rendered moot. Examples of constructive sorts of suffering is the burning sensation felt in hard exercise and the healing of wounds, the squirming mental misery of trying to finish a paper or book on time and still do quality work, or the tearing pain of bittersweet grief at the loss of a dearly loved one. Destructive suffering, such as the despair of watching children suffer from illness or starvation, the maddening confusion of feeling one’s mental acuity and individuality eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, or the disgust of watching others ruin their own and other’s lives through crime, political machinations, or thoughtlessness, is not so self-evidently beneficial, to say the least. But I don’t remember this distinction being made clear to me at any point. Any sort of suffering can be explained away as destructive or constructive as conceived in the mysterious, unknowable mind of the creator, for example. This treatment is especially convenient in attempts to resolve the infamous ‘problem of evil’. But for those not satisfied with the ‘mysterian’ explanation and really want to understand the matter, the problem remains: how does one justify the fetishization of suffering via a reliable method of distinguishing between its destructive and constructive forms?
Perhaps the distinction between these forms of suffering exists but is just too hard for individuals to distinguish most of the time because the emotions get in the way. It’s hard to recognize suffering as constructive when you feel compassion for other sufferers, or you feel discouragement or weariness in the face of your own. Or, even more encouragingly for proponents of this view, one type of suffering can be transformed into the other based on the attitude of the sufferer. There is some truth to be found in this characterization of certain experiences of suffering. There does seem to be sorts of suffering that’s unavoidable and necessary given the current state of evolution (or of a fixed human nature, for those who don’t believe in evolution, *sigh*): the helpful warning that pain provides, or the fear of death, strangers, or inexplicable noises that aids in self preservation. But upon reflection, the category of suffering of the entirely beneficial sort is really not very large compared to suffering of the harmful sort or suffering that seems to be some mixture of the two. The pain of exercise and of mental exertion seems to deter far too many people from consistent rigorous physical and intellectual exercise (I’m certainly among these!); the pain of grief leads far too many to resort to such comforting tactics as justifying the injustices of the world with flimsy excuses or to believing in flimsy or patently false metaphysical claims, or to vengeance; and so on. When I consider various sorts of suffering, I’m hard put to find any that most of the time and for most people, the result of experience it is entirely beneficial in the long run.
Perhaps the difference between constructive and destructive suffering is a matter of degree and duration, then, rather than of kind. The kind of suffering experienced in sport or in military training and combat, for example, are experienced in limited blocks of time and have a foreseeable end, allowing hope and the expectation of a better time to come mitigate the potential bad effects of suffering and strengthen the good effects. But this answer isn’t entirely satisfactory either. While it can seem true in some circumstances, it’s not for many others. People can become obsessed with and addicted to suffering, for one thing, as in the case of over-zealous religious who become sado-masochistically addicted to corporal punishment (sadistic ruler-wielding teaching nuns of yore, anyone?) Or, suffering can burrow deep into a person’s psyche and undermine their entire personality, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by veterans and victims of sustained bullying. It appears, then, it’s not the degree or duration of the suffering that makes it constructive or destructive: rather, it’s more feasible that the constructiveness or destructiveness is a feature of the effects on the sufferer, not of the suffering itself.
I think one of the most important reasons that more kinds of suffering is destructive than not it that it tends to draw people into themselves and away from others. For example, I’ve noticed this in some athletes: as the pain of exertion accompanies the achievement of higher levels of physical fitness, the pain becomes an addiction, an obsession, and the greater the to suffering, the greater the tendency to self-absorption. This may be an explanation for the behavior of athletes who self-destruct with steroids. I’ve also noticed this, as aforementioned, in some whose religious beliefs hold say that suffering is necessary for redemption, and so attempts to avoid it, for oneself or for others, is fruitless or even evil. Martyrdom is, then, a virtuous state of mind and even the ultimate goal. Yet, I think this tendency to lose oneself in these forms of self-absorption, of attitudes of martyrdom and addiction to suffering, can be antithetical to human flourishing, because human beings are intensely social creatures. Now, it’s true that human beings also have an individualistic side. So some level of self-absorption, some level of obsessive and addictive behavior, is not necessarily negative to the human personality taken as a whole, and when balanced against other personalty traits, can be part of an interesting and dynamic personality. They can even be more sensitive and empathetic. This goes for many creative people, political people, and other idealists. (As a working artist and daydreamer myself, and an enthusiastic fan of the arts, I’m intimately familiar with self-absorption: a certain level of it is necessary for the visions to arise, the ideas to take shape, and the drive to realize them.) It’s also a defining characteristic of “drama queens”, who can be exciting people at some level. But, there’s a real danger that this addiction to suffering, when it starts to dominate, can undermine the social instincts and emotions of a healthy personality. Consider
highly neurotic people, for example, whose internal suffering can become so all-absorbing that, after a while, they reach a point where they can’t see much else in the world besides it. Also, consider the aforementioned ‘drama queens’ who sometimes become so addicted to conflict and the suffering that accompanies, it that they end up needing to create conflict and ‘drama’ where none exists. In a very real sense, very neurotic people and other suffering addicts can separate themselves from society, since they eventually find it difficult to identify closely with others, and in fact, end up imposing their need for suffering on others.
So it seems to me that, in the end, the healthiest attitude to have toward suffering is that it’s an evil to be mitigated and avoided if possible, and if neither is possible, it’s the ability to endure it and triumph over it that’s desirable, not the suffering itself. It’s true that suffering accompanies and is even an integral element to many worthy endeavors, such as athletic training, and humanitarian efforts that involve placing oneself in the same horrific surroundings as the sufferers. But it’s best seen as a tool and a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s just too easy to allow the high that sometimes accompanies it to become an addiction that can lead from obsession and self-absorption to alienation from others, and, far worse, to a complacent attitude towards the suffering other people. Human beings are most generous, most expansive, most supportive, when free from suffering because they are happy, they are unburdened with personal cares and so are able to look outside of themselves and possess the energy to give of themselves to others. By contrast, people who have a more sacrificial, suffering-infused world outlook don’t, in the end, do so well when it comes to helping others, even if the feeling of sacrificing oneself makes it seem more difficult and therefore more virtuous than helping out of an easy-going feeling of well-being. (Daniel Gilbert’s work provides an excellent explanation of the current research on emotion and how it effects human behavior). The habit of viewing suffering as an evil and not a good does far more, overall, to help human beings flourish as the social creatures we are, In the end, I do think it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.