On the Proper Use of Suffering
Reflections on redeeming personal hardship
Adversity is a real, painful, and inevitable part of the human condition.
There are millions of people who have been displaced and affected by the war in the Ukraine. Millions more lost their jobs, livelihoods, businesses and loved ones during the COVID 19 pandemic. Suicide rates, and other “deaths of despair,” are higher than ever, touching many families, including recently our own.
I’ve had a brush with adversity of late—though not on the scale that many in the world are enduring right now. I’ve recently emerged from one of the most challenging weeks of my life. Though my experience was nothing compared to the horrors of what so many are going through right now, the suffering was real for me. It has caused me to reflect deeply and personally on the adversity endemic to the human experience, and on how we might use suffering to make us better, more tender, increasingly grateful, and more fully human. I’d like to share some of these reflections with you.
How our response to adversity can make our suffering worse
I am surprised by how completely undone I became during my recent brush with adversity. I’m not proud of it. I thought I was made of stronger stuff. Retrospectively, I realize that my less-than-admirable response to suffering only made my experience more agonizing.
This bout of adversity involved stressful and anxious waiting. This waiting component to my experience was particularly painful. During this time of waiting, I barely ate or slept. I often woke up in the night anxious, panicked, and unable to calm my mind and go back to sleep. Would this situation ever resolve, or not? I wondered. Each night, I’d retrace everything I’d done that day to get me closer to achieving my goal, and my mind would churn with other creative paths to pursue the next day.
I was weepy and emotional during the day. I’d look at my children and burst into tears, filled with love for them and of self-loathing, sensing I had disappointed them.
During the day I was attached to my phone, desperately waiting to any news of progress in my cause. Each evening I would go to sleep feeling emotionally and physically strung out, utterly exhausted and depleted from a day of trying to control so many things complete beyond my control.
Each morning I would awake and grasp for my phone, hoping that I’d received an email while asleep with resolution to my situation. When I would wake up to no good news, my mind would lurch into mode of frantic planning, devising a fresh plan of action for which buttons to push, levers to pull, and paths to pursue in attempt to fix my problem.
As a result of all this straining and striving, I became a shell of myself. I was nauseous for nearly a week, with my stomach in perpetual summersaults. The fact that I barely ate or slept over the course of this period of time only added to my anxiety.
Time had never gone by more slowly, nor more painfully. Never had I so direly wanted a situation to end—just to be over. The limbo, the waiting, was torture. In striving and grasping as I did, my response to my suffering made my suffering all the worse.
The stoic philosopher Seneca noted this, too. He offered a useful tactic to managing the inevitable suffering in life. He advised people to envision the worst case scenario of whatever it is one are most worried about so as to mentally prepare for it. Then, when and if the worst case scenario does come to fruition, one might be less blindsided by, and in a sense inoculated from, the suffering. In being prepared, the suffering might be less. And if the worst case scenario doesn’t come to pass, you’ll enjoy the relief all the more.
In being mentally prepared for the worse case scenario, we can ease both the cause of our our suffering—and the suffering caused by our response to adversity.
The origins of suffering
My recent encounter with suffering caused me to search for answers behind why this was happening to me. It caused me to reflect on my view of cosmic, divine justice.
Was my view of justice casual, or karmic, in nature—meaning that what happens to us, both good and bad, was a direct result of things we have done?
Or was it orthogonal, such as in the Book of Job, where our suffering in life has nothing to do at all with what we’ve done?
This gets to some timeless questions about the human condition—questions that people have been pondering for millennia:
Why do bad things happen to good people? and;
Why do bad people seem to be rewarded in life?
For Boethius, a sixth century Roman politician who was unjustly imprisoned and executed for crimes he didn’t commit, these two questions were understandable yet ultimately misguided.
He explains why in his The Consolation of Philosophy, a dialogue between him and “Lady Philosophy” that he wrote while imprisoned, and which reflects on the imperfect nature of justice here on Earth.
There, he concludes that it is impossible for bad things to happen to good people, or for good things to happen to bad people.
Because virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment.
Leading a morally upright life is good and right in and of itself. It’s its own reward because the result is coherent, tranquil spirit and soul. Leading a life of cruelty toward others and vice is its own punishment, because these modes of conduct deform the soul and wreak havoc on the psyche.
When we suffer, it’s common to look for reasons behind our suffering. This can help us find the meaning in and for it. We want our suffering to have an origin and a purpose. For our suffering to be random and for no reason at all is simply too much for many of us to bear.
Would I rather my recent hardship be a punishment from the universe for a specific wrongdoing, or would I rather this happen for no reason at all—just a byproduct of randomness in the world?
I’m not sure.
But the answer to my original question— whether the origins of our suffering is causal or orthogonal—is probably both.
Sometimes we do things, and bad consequences follow. There’s no mystery as to the cause of one’s Sunday-morning hangover, for example.
Other times, tragedy strikes, and there’s no point in trying to make sense of it or in trying to find an origin for it. Think of a mother who loses her children in a senseless accident. Such suffering is simply tragic, end of story. Moralizing it, or searching for a reason for it, will only make the tragedy worse.
On the proper uses of suffering
While enduring these several, difficult, days—unaware of what the future might hold for me and my family—I tried to take a long view.
I tried to think about how the misery I was enduring might be redeemed. I was hopeful that what I was going through might be forming me for a greater good, or saving me from a greater evil.
As I reflected, I compiled a list of ways we can put our suffering to a proper use:
Suffering can help foster gratitude. This trying time for me reminded me of the many things I have in life to be thankful for. I’ve never felt more profound gratitude for my children. I would look at them and hold them while my soul was in a state of utter panic and despair, and immediately the brimming thankfulness would displace the pain.
Suffering can cultivate selflessness. Adversity shakes us from complacency; as Tim Keller has noted, it exposes the rats in the basement of our soul. It shatters our ego, painfully, and puts our view of our self into perspective.
Suffering reminds us of our dependence on others. When we endure hardship, we are forced to grapple with the reality that there is truly so little we can control in life. We are compelled to surrender our desire for control, and any illusion that we have sole power over our destiny. Our vulnerability when we suffer shatters the myth of our invincibility and autonomy, and forces us to remember that we depend on others in life.
Suffering can cultivate our humanity. Hardship fosters empathy and tenderness of heart. It deepens our soul and allows us to better understand the suffering of others. It offers an opportunity for vulnerability and intimacy—something that we should cherish, especially in an era that normally emphasizes independence and rewards invulnerability.
Suffering re-orders our priorities around what matters most. When I was in the midst of my difficult period, I had a recurring image in my mind. The image was of my fist, tightly clenched, and hanging on to something— a dream, a desire. Yet despite hanging on to my desire with all my might, my time of adversity was forcing me—painfully—to open my fist; I felt it smashed against the rocks of reality until I finally opened it and let go of my desires. I take this image to mean that, sometimes, we must come to terms with the loss of something hoped for, no matter how desperately we might want it. In doing so, we open up room in our soul for something it is, perhaps, even better. Suffering thus forces us to hang on loosely to temporal things—even good things. Suffering helps us place our hope in things eternal, things that truly matter.
Each of these are proper uses of suffering. We can choose to let suffering make us bitter and resentful, cursing God and others for our suffering. Or we can use it for good and noble ends, allowing it to form us and make us people who value the right things, and who get the most out of life.
Sometimes, we emerge from a time of hardship and, with time, are able to see meaning and purpose in it. We might even be able to say that we are grateful that it happened. Other times, we come out of suffering wounded and exhausted. Gaining a healthy perspective on a difficult experience can take time—sometimes quite a long time.
Regardless of our mental disposition during and after suffering, we can ask ourselves a few questions that can encourage us to rise above the smallness and myopia of our inward-looking concerns, and adopt a long view of adversity.
When we encounter hardship, we can ask ourselves some useful questions:
What can this teach me?
How can I allow this to form me, fortify my character, purify my motives and priorities, and make me a better, more gentle and gracious human being?
How might this experience be causing the death of something old and worse in my life, and making room for something new and beautiful?
How might this experience be redeemed?
Our culture doesn’t equip us well to deal with suffering. It has a shallow metaphysical view of humanity and the world. Anything that prevents us from achieving what the world sees as the highest good—immediate gratification of our desires and preservation of our material comfort—is shattering to us. It feels like unjustified punishment, and we’re undone by the injustice of it all. I try to make it a point in my own life to cultivate a desire for things eternal, but through this period of suffering I found myself succumb to a woe-is-me mentality, focusing on my own petty and parochial concerns.
This experience thus helped me realize how much work I still have to do. It’s only when we encounter adversity for ourselves that we realize we don’t have the resources to deal with it. Recognizing our blind spots in life may be one unexpected blessing of hardship.
Most of human history has been defined by conflict, injustice, and suffering. Times of peace and prosperity are the anomaly, though they often seem like the norm for us today. Indeed, this expectation of peace is one reason we are so shocked and outraged by un-provoked war in Ukraine today.
We look around us at the injustice in the world and are dismayed, thinking how could this happen? That’s an understandable response, but it reveals a certain naïveté of human nature and human history.
We can put our own affliction into perspective, and elevate our minds during hardship, by keeping the magnitude of suffering in the past, as well as the great suffering of others in our present, in mind.
This might better enable us to allow our suffering to form us, and make us better, more sensitive, empathetic, and kind human beings.
Here are some additional questions for you to consider about the nature, purpose, and proper use of suffering:
What are some approaches to suffering that have helped see you through tough times?
What insights into the meaning, purpose, and proper use of suffering have you derived from going through, and emerging from, trying days?
What is your view of why people suffer? Is it causal—where people get what they deserve—or orthogonal—where suffering has no relation to what we do in life—or a bit of both?
How might we use our suffering to form us, strengthen our character, make us more empathetic and more fully human?
I’d love your thoughts. I invite you to share them with me at email@example.com
I offer these reflections to you in hope that they can be an encouragement and comfort to you in any difficult times you might encounter. Community is all the more important in times of trial, so I am grateful that you are here.