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How Philosophy Helps Us Endure Life’s Difficulties

Suffering is the inevitable consequence of living.

Every human being will suffer from the moment they go through that traumatic life event called birth. Our bodies and our minds are fragile. If we’re lucky enough to live a long life, we accumulate mental and physical scars and bruises.

We use coping mechanisms to live on in spite of the myriad of different ways we suffer, from physical injury and pathological illness to yearnings and depression. Those mechanisms can be unconsciously natural or positively cultural.

Our immune system saves our life practically every day, our mind becomes adept at compartmentalising mental anguish. We use medicine, exercise and ritual to fix our bodies and minds, and act as a community to care for others.

The mere absence of suffering could be considered good fortune. In times and places where medical science is not as available, illnesses that are easily remedied for us cause an immense amount of suffering. In the thousands of years before dentistry had become common practice, persistent toothaches had caused people to kill themselves in despair.

Human beings can fix different types of suffering in different ways, but the fact of suffering still stands. We are doomed to suffer in whichever way and to whichever extent it may come.

It is not suffering itself, but its senselessness that inspires dread in even the healthiest and luckiest among us.

All creatures have the capacity to suffer. Around the world at every moment creatures are devoured, crushed, injured or fall to disease, thirst, hunger or exhaustion.

Recognising and Redeeming Suffering

To merely suffer is to merely be alive like any other creature. To make meaning from suffering is to be human. It’s what makes us the exception to all life on earth. We are the beings that recognise ourselves as victims of fate, or of premeditated cruelty, and we recognise the forms that suffering can take.

We protest for political prisoners in far-flung nations, we send flowers to our sick friends. Against premeditated cruelty of our own kind we recognise our mutual human rights. Against the horrors of fate we share compassion. In the way we respond to our tragedies we weave rich tapestries of meaning together that make us wholly exceptional as a species and yet so similar as individuals.

In every culture around the world the problem of suffering has been handled in different ways. Some cultures, such as in the Christian world, give suffering a universal meaning to redeem it in some way, to give it a sense or purpose. Other cultures, like Buddhism, seek to transcend it through wisdom.

Christianity teaches that God incarnate suffered so that the world can be redeemed of mankind’s “original sin” (the rebellion of Adam and Eve). We “all bear a cross”, as St James said, and can take comfort in the example of Jesus. If we follow that example, the Bible preaches, we get an eternal reward after we suffer for the last time and die.

St Paul wrote of suffering, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Many Christians embrace physical pain to feel closer to God. Self-flagellation is still practised by some sects of Christian monks, and every Easter pilgrims heave heavy crosses to get a small taste of the pain that Jesus of Nazareth went through.

Vincent van Gogh is the epitome of the suffering artist. Despite his mental anguish, he produced some of the most extraordinary works of art in the modern era. This exquisite painting was produced in the year Van Gogh shot himself. Among his last words were “La tristesse durera toujours” — “The sadness will go on forever”. Did van Gogh produce great art because of his suffering, or in spite of it? And are we irresponsible as a culture to glorify suffering for art? Painting: Almond Blossom, 1890. (Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia).

The Consolation of Philosophy

But why is bad luck so seemingly indiscriminate? Why do good people suffer? Boethius, a Christian philosopher in the late Roman world saw suffering as being an ultimate good.

The philosopher had been handed terrible luck. He was wrongly accused of treason and condemned to the fate of torture and execution.

Writing The Consolation of Philosophy in his cell, he could not reconcile senseless suffering with a benevolent and all-knowing God. He theorised that bad fortune exists to either test good people or punish bad people and therefore has an intrinsic and cosmic meaning.

Everything that happens, Boethius reasoned, happens for the better. The “consolation” that Boethius offers himself and us is that suffering is part of that ultimate good. Good and bad is not a matter of circumstance. It’s driven by a divine plan, what we call “providence.” He wrote:

“Since all fortune, whether sweet or bitter, has as its purpose the reward or trial of good men or the correction and punishment of the wicked, it must be good because it is clearly either just or useful.”

Providence is also important in the Stoic tradition. According to the Stoics the universe is part of God. As such, the universe and everything that happens within it is perfect.

Our partial understanding of the universe prevents us from seeing the greater good of all things that pass, even things that seem irredeemably terrible. This is a very similar way that suffering is given a cosmic meaning.

But try to tell that to the 6-month-old child born into a painful condition. It’s practically impossible to demonstrate that there is any cosmic meaning, let alone value, in suffering without recourse to the supernatural.

Try telling that child’s parents that the universe is “perfect” with nothing to prove it.

Strength from Adversity

That said, adversity builds character as long as we can allow it to. Suffering is an opportunity for those of us with the capacity to rethink our lives. Human happiness is shot through with some bitterness.

The Stoics also teach that what is out of our control is what is least important. It is our attitude to suffering which we can control, not the suffering itself which we can’t control, that counts. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the “obstacle is the way”. What causes us grief can be the source of a valuable lesson.

For Friedrich Nietzsche suffering has meaning in so much that it allows for self-transcendence. The pain and grief that we experience throughout our lives offer the basis for flourishing as human beings.

Nietzsche wrote, “What cannot kill me will make me stronger.” It is now such a commonplace phrase that it has become a cliché. But the context is important.

Nietzsche wrote the maxim in his short masterpiece The Twilight of the Idols. The book was written in 1888, shortly before Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse, effectively “dying” as a thinker. Perhaps this line was written as self-encouragement in those last months of sanity.

Nietzsche himself suffered immensely both in ill health and in his emotional life. His difficult existence would no doubt have informed his ideas about self-overcoming. Nietzsche castigates those who distract themselves from pain with comforting beliefs or material comforts.

To not suffer is not to be. What do we do with that bare fact of being alive? We have only one choice since the alternative is unbearable. Nietzsche pointed out that while living is suffering, surviving is finding meaning in suffering.

In other words, meaning is the means by which we endure. Nietzsche went further to suggest that great accomplishments are exchanged for great suffering. We must be martyrs to our art, and our art is our worldly life. He wrote:

“Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.”

Our suffering can have meaning only if we allow it to. That is probably the best advice we can give to ourselves and others in times of pain and grief.

Suffering is Ours Alone

Suffering can come in physical pain, of bereavement, of loss. Each of these forms of torment, along with all others, are nuanced and particular. The meaning we give to suffering ought to be particular to the cause if we are really going to find any practical or even spiritual benefit from it.

We must choose to make meaning for suffering ourselves in whatever way we can. To do so is to say “yes” to everything you’ve been through because it makes you what you are now. To affirm your suffering is to affirm what you have become now, in this very moment.

Our suffering is ours, unique to our make up. Nobody can understand the pain of another in the way the other knows that pain. The meaning of our pain is ours alone. That’s a lonely thought, and it needs some courage to accept. But to find meaning takes wisdom and wisdom requires courage.