On Suffering

“The happy years are the lost, the wasted years; one must wait for suffering before one can work. And then the idea of the preliminary suffering becomes associated with the idea of work and one is afraid of each new literary undertaking because one thinks of the pain one will first have to endure in order to imagine it.” Proust

The problem of suffering in all its forms from the minor, almost trivial, to the severe and tragic continues to unsettle me. The life of the majority of human beings on this planet is difficult and largely harsh. As Ryszard Kapucinski put it, “For me this is the most important thing we are facing.”

I blogged about this topic in connection with Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl argued that without suffering, human life cannot be complete. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

He claimed that a person’s character is revealed in their response to the inevitable suffering they experience, citing his experiences in Auschwitz for support. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

I was reminded of Frankl’s view once again in reading Francine Du Plessix Gray’s short biography of Simone Weil. Gray says Weil believed labor work is the truest road to self-knowledge. The suffering of the working class became the central theme of her life and, as Gray notes, “her strong tendency to cultivate her own.

Elsewhere, Weil wrote: “After my years in the factory…I was, as it were, broken in pieces, body and soul. That contact with affliction killed my youth. Until then…I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and firsthand experience of it. As I worked in the factory…the affliction of others branded my flesh and my soul.”

I am not one who holds to the belief that suffering is essential for creative achievement or that it builds “character.” Neither did Somerset Maugham: “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Must one suffer in order to work, to write beautifully and with wisdom? Are there not countless exceptions? Was the life that Tolstoy lived so grounded in suffering that he never could have written his masterpieces without this experience? The same applies to every artist, writer or composer.

To be sure there are several kinds of suffering: physical pain, psychic suffering, disease and hunger induced suffering. As far as I know, the effects of these various forms of suffering on personality and character development have yet to be investigated empirically.

While theories abound, they are usually based on the experience of a single individual or anecdotal accounts of others. Yet, if a widely applicable theory of the effects of suffering is possible (and I am not sure it is, given the diversity of forms it takes), I doubt this is the way it is going to be derived.

"We stand, as it were, on the shore, and see multitudes of our fellow beings struggling in the water, stretching forth their arms, sinking, drowning, and we are powerless to assist them." Felix Adler