In his 1888 book, Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Today, the first reaction to that statement for many of us may be, “I don’t think so, Fred”. Or, “try telling that to a vet with a traumatic brain injury”. For many people, suffering is seen as the antithesis of good health or good fortune. And yet for all of us life is a journey filled with suffering. How we reconcile these two opposing perspectives is important. It defines us as a person. In our youth we see suffering in the small things, like bullying on the playground or loss of our first young love or failure to win the big game. As we age, suffering becomes more profound as possibly jobs are lost, marriages crumble, friends betray us, loved ones die, and disease ravages our bodies. Suffering is a constant in our lives, but for many it is seen as an aberration in an otherwise good life rather than a certainty, or imaginably, a blessing. Regardless, very often suffering is viewed as something to be avoided at all costs, something we could well do without.
And yet in some activities, activities that are likely germane to only the 20th and 21st centuries, suffering (self-inflicted suffering) is often a badge of honor. These activities most likely involve athletics and recreational pursuits. Sure, there were the few gladiators and self-flagellating monks of yesteryear who derived sadistic satisfaction in suffering, but self-induced suffering is pretty much a modern phenomenon. “No pain, no gain” is the mantra of runners, weightlifters, mountain climbers, football players (from Pop Warner to the NFL), etc. Unless you “feel the burn” you are surely taking a sissified approach to your chosen fitness or athletic endeavor. With the exception of the athletes above, who can take a hot sauna in the gym after they punish themselves (thus nullifying some of their suffering), most of us still prefer to put our feet up after a hard day at the office and dull our suffering with a glass of wine or two Advil. Besides, there’s the Wii and video games where, if we wish, we can partake of strenuous activities without ever getting out of our recliner. In fact, we already know from watching so many sci-fi movies from the couch potato lotus position what our suffer-less destiny is; we are pre-ordained to be nothing more than large heads connected to spindly little hairless bodies once robots take over all manual labor (as foreseen in the movie Wall-e).
At some deep intrinsic level, people seem to pine for suffering. In Ireland, where they walk long distances, often in the pouring rain, they call it “a good stretch of the legs” and routinely decline offers of a lift. In Sri Lanka and many other cultures people walk on hot coals; it is often used as a rite of passage. In Boy Scouts you have to suffer alone in the forest all night in order to be worthy of the Order of the Arrow. And the number of people running marathons, cycling century races and participating in Iron Man contests grows each year. There is something innately rewarding about suffering that perhaps modern man is just rediscovering.
But other than in the ritualistic pursuits above, is there a reason why we should, in the modern world, actually seek out, or at least welcome, suffering? Is there a grace that comes from suffering, something of which we shouldn’t want to miss? In other words, are there rewards to be gained by incorporating (or simply accepting) suffering in our daily lives? The English writer and moralist, Samuel Johnson, wrote, “Adversity has ever been considered the state in which a man most easily becomes acquainted with himself”. And only in becoming acquainted with ourselves do we begin to truly see the purpose of our life. Suffering (adversity) often introduces us to a stranger within, and helps us to stop and assess our values and make an accounting of how well we are attending to them. How easy it is to get caught up in the daily activities of work, responsibility, consumption, and recreation, activities that perhaps anesthetize us to what is really important in human existence.
Suffering is a distraction. It is a distraction from ego and pride and other frivolous wastes of time on meaningless undertakings and preoccupations. Suffering can have a profound effect on one’s perspective of life, turning a person’s focus from the mundane to the significant, or even the sacred. And yet, why is it that we embrace the many faux sufferings of the weekend warrior described above and reject the idea of real suffering?
The moment a person is confronted with the word cancer from their physician, life is never the same again. Besides fighting the disease, the person’s mind becomes more attuned to things like family and relationships and legacy. Possessions lose their allure and consumption is often replaced with giving; their inward fixation on self is frequently directed outward and replaced with more global thoughts and deeds.
In most religions the practice of fasting is a part of the liturgy. Fasting is not life-threatening, but when we are used to the availability and abundance of food at any time, at every four corners, and in every refrigerator, fasting reminds us, for whatever brief time, that life is not proceeding as usual. The slight gnawing in the stomach signals the brain to search out the reason why we are fasting and hopefully forces it to acknowledge some of the more meaningful aspects of life.
We do not have to search out suffering; suffering naturally comes knocking on everyone’s door. It is what we do with the inevitable suffering that is important. We can complain about it, treating it like a curse that has unfairly been visited upon only us, or we can accept it, even welcome it, knowing that its presence gives us a unique opportunity to slow down and contemplate our true place in the universe. For some who welcome it, the suffering may bring them closer to their god and their faith. For others it may open their eyes to nature and wildlife, such that these previously obscured treasures become more a part of their daily lives. For some there may be a relationship that needs healing and the discovery of a newfound wisdom on how to go about rebuilding trust and love. Still for others, suffering oneself may remind them of all the suffering that exists in the world around us and put in mind a vision of our responsibility toward those less fortunate than ourselves.
It could very well be argued that suffering is one of those rare “blessings in disguise”. If it is, it is left to us, however, to accept the blessing or not.
“I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” – Jewish proverb