It is a cornerstone of Buddhism that life is suffering. That’s not to say that life is only suffering: of course it can also be joy, excitement, sharing, learning and other wonderful exhilarating things. But the fact remains that suffering is inevitable. If we’re lucky enough, we’ll avoid war, poverty or rejection, but even the most blessed lives can not escape old age or illness.
It should be obvious, really, but it is easily forgotten in these happiness-focused times. All that emphasis on feeling good can subtly lead us to see suffering as something we can eliminate, fixable through some kind of therapy, spiritual path or pill. It’s only a matter of finding the right one.
But while we may see suffering as a problem awaiting a technological fix, we sometimes also elevate it to something good in itself, to the point that if something really bad happens to us, we swear we wouldn’t have it any other way: “it was the best thing that ever happened to me”.
But is it necessary to celebrate suffering in order to find constructive ways to respond to it? Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of logotherapy, had a good chance to reflect on this as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He concluded that one of the ways in which we give life meaning, alongside the things we create or those we experience, is the attitude we bring to unavoidable suffering.
Frankl thought that when our circumstances are dire we can still claim the last freedom, that of choosing how to respond. Even in a concentration camp, it was possible to retain human dignity and make moral choices. But he insisted that suffering was not necessary to find meaning, and that if it’s open to us to change the situation for the better, then that is what we should do.
Suffering doesn’t automatically make us better people, and it’s not the only way to grow in wisdom. What it does do is force us to choose what is most important to us and what we wish to make of ourselves.
How we deal with the inevitable suffering of life has been a central concern of all the great philosophers, religions and wisdom traditions. All agree it cannot be avoided, so what matters is how we understand and respond to it.
For many ancient Greek philosophers, particularly the Stoics, the answer was that if you adopted the right attitude, suffering couldn’t harm you. You might face terrible misfortune, pain, even death, but if none of these things cracks your integrity, your virtue, you are, in a deeper sense, unscathed.
Christianity took the bold step of embracing suffering as the road to redemption. In the Sermon on the Mount, those who weep and are persecuted are called the blessed, while Christ’s own crucifixion becomes a model for the pious life. Nietzsche later rejected this as a debilitating embrace of misery and powerlessness. Still, suffering retained a central role in his own ethical outlook, something to be overcome by will.
At their best, what all these approaches get right is the idea that there are very few things, if any, which are unambiguously good or bad in the long run. That’s because a whole life is not a simple aggregate of its parts, but a blend. To take a culinary analogy: vinegar by itself is sour and unpleasant but, combined with the right other ingredients, it can lift a dish to new heights.
The analogy cautions against taking itself too far. Many bitter plants can never be made palatable and many others spoil dishes more often than they improve them. But much of the time, it is how they fit together that matters most, not how delicious they are in their pure form.
So it is that the components of life can be good, bad or indifferent in themselves, but they take on a different meaning depending on how they are made to fit the whole. So, for example, although illness is bad in itself, it is at least sometimes possible to respond to it in ways that extract some benefit. In that sense, suffering is never good, and it doesn’t even do us good, but still we can make good use of it and use its bitterness to draw out what is sweet and savoury in life.
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Stephen Grosz returns in two weeks.
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