While it is part of our universal nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, culture plays a central role in how we deal with suffering. In the West, we generally reject suffering. We see it as an unwelcome interruption of our pursuit of happiness. So we fight it, repress it, medicate it, or search for quick-fix solutions to get rid of it. In some cultures, especially in the East, suffering is acknowledged for the important role it plays in people’s lives, in the meandering path toward enlightenment. While I have yet to be convinced that it is possible to reach a stat of enlightenment or nirvana—a state of perfect and permanent inner peace—there is much we can learn from the Buddhist approach to life’s impermanence and imperfections, defeats and disappointments.
The Tibetan monk Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche discusses four benefits of suffering: wisdom, resilience, compassion, and a deep respect for reality.
Wisdom emerges from the experience of suffering. When things go well, we rarely stop to ask questions about our lives. A difficult situation, however, often forces us out of our mindless state, causing us to reflect on our experiences. To be able to see deeply, to develop what King Solomon referred to as a wise heart, we must brave the eye of the storm.
Nietzsche, a wise man himself, famously remarked that what does not kill us, makes us stronger. Suffering can make us more resilient, better able to endure hardships. Just as a muscle, in order to build up, must endure some pain, so our emotions must endure pain in order to strengthen. Helen Keller, who in her lifetime knew much suffering, as well as joy, noted that “character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Everybody hurts sometimes, and allowing ourselves to feel this universal emotion links us together in a web of compassion. The dictionary defines compassion as a “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it,” but the only way we can gain a deep awareness of the suffering of others is by having suffered ourselves. A theoretical understanding of suffering is as meaningless as a theoretical description of the color blue to a blind person. To know it, we need to experience it. As Pastor Fritz Williams notes, “Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own.”
One of the most significant benefits of suffering is that it breeds a deep respect for reality, for what is. While the experience of joy connects us to the realm of infinite possibilities, the experience of pain reminds us of our limitations. When, despite all our effort, we get hurt, we are humbled by constraints that we sometimes fail to notice when we’re flying high. It seems to me more than symbolic that when in ecstasy we often lift our head up, to the heavens, to the infinite, and when in agony, we tend to cast our gaze down to earth, to the finite.
Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa says that we all need to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets: the first slip with the Talmudic words “for my sake the world was created” and the second slip with the words from Genesis “I am but dust and ashes.” The healthy psychological state resides somewhere in between the two messages, somewhere between hubris and humility. In the same way that the synthesis between hubris and humility breeds psychological health, combining ecstasy and agony establishes a healthy relationship with reality.
Ecstasy makes me feel invincible: it makes me feel that I am the master of my destiny, that I create my reality. But agony is likely to make me feel vulnerable and humbled: it makes me feel that I am the servant of my circumstances, that I have little control over my reality. Ecstasy alone leads to detached arrogance; suffering alone engenders resignation. Life’s vicissitudes bring us closer to Aristotle’s golden mean.
A deep respect for reality implies an acceptance of what is—of our potential, our limitation, and our humanity. Recognizing that suffering is integral to our lives and that there are other benefits to pain, such as the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, we become more accepting of our suffering. And when we truly accept grief and sorrow as inevitable, we actually suffer less.
Nathaniel Branden refers to self-esteem—for which self-acceptance is central—as the immune system of consciousness. A strong immune system does not mean that we do not get sick but rather that we get sick less often and that, when we do get sick, we recover faster. Similarly, suffering is unlikely to ever go away completely, but as the immune system of our consciousness strengthens, we suffer less often, and when we do, our recovery is more rapid.
The fact that suffering yields benefits does not imply that we ought to seek it actively—just as the fact that sickness actually strengthens our immune system does not imply that we need to look for opportunities to become sick. We naturally seek pleasure in our lives and try to minimize the amount of pain we endure. The imperfect and impermanent world provides us ample opportunities, without us actively looking for them, to fortify our immune system.
The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering—a truth we can either reject or accept as an inevitable part of being human. And when we learn to accept, even embrace, difficult experiences, our suffering becomes a tool, an instrument, for growth.
This post is excerpted from “Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life”, by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD