Some Brief Thoughts on Suffering

While working on my well-overdue masters thesis, I’ve been reading a large portion of the philosophical literature surrounding ‘suffering’ and what it implicates when trying to ground moral responsibilities.  Combined with other ideas coming out of the Effective Altruism community (prompted in a large part by the work of Peter Singer) I’ve been thinking a lot about how suffering shapes our character.

There are various types of suffering of course, but I want to focus on an important distinction between what I’ll call need-based suffering and want-based suffering.  Both these types are debilitating in their own way.

Need-based suffering is driven mainly by a lack of access to basic resources: food, water, shelter, sanitation, job opportunities, etc.  This kind of suffering is real and tangible and is a scourge upon our planet that we need to solve.  We could argue about how effective we have been as a society in tackling these problems - through the arms of philanthropic aid, global development programmes and various other attempts to reduce this kind of suffering, but what seems uncontroversial is that we have a decent idea as to the problems faced in these communities and the solutions seem simple in principle, if we could just circumvent the socio-economic and political barriers in the way of more effective resource distribution.

Want-based suffering is much less understood as it’s completely invisible and hidden from the public eye.  As Western society has liberalised over the last hundred years and the dominant philosophical ideas have become increasingly more individualistic, the data on loneliness, mental health and suicide has regressed significantly.  From my own experience I deal with much of the same anxiety and mental confusion that most of my peers in their mid-twenties deal with and so that’s the only kind of mental anguish that I can really speak to with any sense of understanding.

After you leave a structured experience like university and move into the real world, the desire to find a stable sense of purpose or meaning is immense.  But the nature of your mid-twenties is that you’re probably not going to get married for a few years, you won’t settle into a career that you absolutely love and you’re still learning about who you are.  You don’t quite know where your life is, you haven’t discovered some calling that just seizes you - and therefore any setback that you encounter can be really disorientating.  Nietzsche’s famous quote comes to mind: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  

In your mid-twenties, you don’t have that why yet.  And so suffering finds you.

David Brooks in a podcast interview with Tyler Cowen offers some consolation: “The people who suffer and grow from suffering are able to turn their moments of suffering into stories of redemption.”  

He also quotes Paul Tillich who says: “Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you’re not the person you thought you were.  It carves through the floor of what you thought was the basement of your soul and it reveals a cavity.  Then it carves through that and reveals a cavity.  And then carves through that floor and reveals a cavity below.”

Brooks again: “Moments of suffering reveals the deepness of a person the way nothing else does.  And then I think you realise that the only thing that can fuel that depth is a spiritual food and not a material one.”

I know that the word ‘spiritual’ is a controversial one for some, but what I take it to mean is that suffering can only be satiated with that story of redemption.  If we can see it as fuel to light a fire under ourselves and build something of meaning from the ashes of desperation, we can perhaps live again.