Nietzsche on The Art of Suffering Well

Suffering

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend about this and that, and talk eventually turned – as it seems to do a lot these days – to the subject of happiness. After we exchanged a few superficial words about it, my friend slammed down his glass on the wooden table and said with vehemence, ‘The main problem is desire.’ When I asked him what he meant, he said, ‘If only I could stop myself from wanting things, I will stop running after them. I will be happier.’

Though I agreed with him at the time, on some thought it occurred to me that we look at the state of happiness as being that in which we’re free of worry. In a previous post on the subject, we referred to this state as Ataraxia. Our intuition tells us that we cannot be happy if we’re suffering. In order to be happy, we have to put an end to suffering.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism concern themselves with this state of suffering and its eradication. Almost all philosophers and spiritual leaders in history have gone to great lengths to guide us away from the path of suffering so that we may be happier, more contented, less angry, more peaceful.

What’s the problem with that?

At first glance, nothing. But if we ruminate over it a little, does it not seem to you that we often shun suffering in our bid to be happy? Like my friend who proclaimed that desire is the root of all displeasure, don’t many of us live a life of safety and comfort, forever fearful of the next pitfall in our path? Are we not brought up by our families and society to think of dark emotions such as sadness, anger and depression as bad things, whereas glee, laughter and optimism are inherently ‘good’?

So I went on a hunt and found a philosopher who, instead of decrying suffering, celebrated it. Friedrich Nietzsche.

Suffering as something to be embraced

One of the principal tenets of Nietzsche’s philosophy is that suffering should not be feared. We must instead embrace it, not only as a necessary fundamental component of human life, but also as a means to teach us about ourselves. What causes unhappiness is not the act of suffering, says Nietzsche, but our response to it. Great happiness often comes out of great suffering, he reminds us, and if we spend our lives avoiding hardship and choosing comfort, by doing so we also deny ourselves the opportunity to be truly happy.

Examples of these are not hard to find in our daily lives. The dark side of just about every notable human achievement is the sweat, blood and toil that go into making it possible. Success is close friends with loneliness, self-doubt, physical pain and depression. Though we don’t mention them in moments of celebration, they’re ever present, just under the hood we pretend we cannot see.

Is embracing suffering enough to be happy?

The question that may arise from the previous section is whether being a willing sufferer is enough to be happy. If I stop complaining about my troubles and give in to them, am I guaranteed a more peaceful life? Unfortunately not, says Nietzsche. The most important part of suffering well is to carefully choose our response to it. An emotion like envy could make you bitter, but if dealt with well, it could lead to self-awareness. Anxiety could lead to panic, but it could also allow us to get to the cause of it with the hope of understanding and managing it better. Failure could make you question your worth, but it could also teach you lessons in gratitude and humility. Heartbreak could lead to loneliness, but it could also make you resilient.

Like Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, many years later, Nietzsche also says that while we cannot choose our troubles, we can, and must, choose how to respond to them. It’s our response to suffering that makes us either happy or unhappy, not suffering itself.

Steps that all of us can follow

I’ve resolved to put into action the following steps in my own life for a while to see if they make a positive difference. You can tell me if any of these work for you, or if you have better suggestions.

  1. Expect failure. Whenever I try anything new, I expect failure. This is a trick I use to get over the fear of failure that our social conditioning puts over us. By expecting failure, I hope I’m always prepared to learn from it when it happened.
  2. Not think of ‘dark’ emotions as bad. Anger, lust, envy and greed are as human as peace, love, kindness and humility. Acceptance of the darker emotions is possible, I think, only if we first stop thinking of them as ‘bad’.
  3. Suffer with dignity. No matter how small or how big my suffering is, I will not complain. I will embrace it as a natural consequence of living.
  4. Think about my suffering. Though this is uncomfortable, I will write about my troubles and my feelings associated with them. The aim of this exercise is to know myself more deeply, to unearth the desires underlying my emotions and to evaluate them.

What do you think of suffering and pain? Do you think of them as bad, something to be avoided? Or do you agree that they should be embraced and reflected upon, so that we can choose our responses wisely?

Image Courtesy: Red Letter Christians

Comments

  1. While wisdom has not much to do with age, but with experience and adapting to changes, suffering these days has a very convoluted undertone. I have personally observed that those who show great sufferings are considered to be strong and thus, good things will come to them. However, as you have mentioned, this is definitely not suffering with dignity. Also, there is a certain human limitation in understanding as to how to deal with the feelings of bitterness and hopelessness. This ability to take it and live the feeling, I personally believe, only comes if you practice and control your mind. Well, at least that much is in our hands.

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  2. Sharath, as I see, suffering is neither for embracing nor avoiding but for using it as a means to transcend from both. I don’t see Buddha and Nietzsche on different path. It is Buddha’s response to his suffering that he felt through empathy by seeing an old, an ill and a corpse, he began seeking truth.

    Nietzsche said “There are no facts but only interpretations.” Buddha said “In the Sky, there is no distinction of East & West; people create distinction ourt of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” It is our response to the circumstances that makes it happy or suffering. A jar of having capacity of 10 litre when filled with 5 litre water will always remain half-full and half-empty both at the same time. If we see it half-empty, we’ll suffer. And, if we see it as half-full, we’ll be happy.

    I recommend to expect success and be ready to accept failure at the same time. Don’t suffer with dignity but try to find out the happy part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ravish,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that Buddha and Nietzsche are pretty much saying the same thing, even though at a superficial level it feels like they’re on opposite tracks. If you read Buddha’s ‘Eight Fold Path’ to transcend suffering, it is very similar to Nietzsche’s prescription of ‘suffering well’.

      The only place where they differ, I think, is that Buddha said that thinking of suffering will not make it go away, whereas Nietzsche said that thinking about it – and writing about it, if his life could be taken as an example – is the only way we can turn suffering into positive change of character. If we don’t think about it, we will respond with instinct, whereas with thought, we have a choice of responding in the ‘correct’ manner.

      All said, I think you and I are on the same page. Though I’m an innate pessimist, I respect your view of ‘expecting success’ as well 🙂

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  3. Quite a profound post this, and the comments left add more value to the same.

    To me individually, I would rather expect modest success or even failure whenever I do something as that does two things. One, it lowers my own expectations from the results, and two, it keeps me grounded and on my toes when actually performing the task. Another important consequence of the same is that any little joy that the result brings me is deeply appreciated.

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    • Hi Jai,

      I think we’re philosophical siblings. I go the extra mile and expect to fail in spite of my best efforts. I don’t even expect modest success. Is this a way of tricking nature? No. I just think that failure is much more common in the world than success. It’s only because success gets such good press (and so much of it) that we think we will all be successful ‘if only’ we work hard/commit ourselves/etc etc. In spite of doing all of that, failure is much more common, mainly due to factors we cannot control.

      Same thing with so called ‘negative’ emotions. I’ve long understood that these ‘bad emotions’ are as important as good ones, if not more. They teach you more about yourself, and are more useful in character-building.

      And yes, I totally agree with the practical advantages that you cite of being pessimistic and lowering your expectations. Win-win 🙂

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  4. Loved this post, Sharath. Tend to agree with one of the posters above on striving for balance though. Speaking for myself, I have always erred on the side of glamourizing and seeking suffering as some of my biggest achievements stem from those periods. On the other hand, large chunks of life have gone which on the surface seemed like periods of contentment. However, when I look back on those times now, they were periods when I was leading a largely soulless life, periods of very little movement in life or personal growth.

    On the other hand, always choosing strife and trouble ain’t good either. No point avoiding the good things in life by calling it escapism (my favourite trick- I don’t deserve it right now, will celebrate after X happens)- I have done that all my life and continue to do. It’s stupid!

    The other extreme, a tendency I have seen in a number of close friends is to chase pleasure- I have always condemned them as escapists. Chasing material stuff/pleasures might make you forget the problem but doesn’t really solve the real issues in life.

    I guess, balance is the answer. If suffering comes, deal with it. If not, loosen up and enjoy yourself. Easier said than done though, as I believe these sorts of behaviours are hard wired into our personalities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rahul,

      Welcome to the blog! Thanks for the comment. I have a regular topic of conversation with a good friend of mine on ‘Yogi versus Bhogi’ – the ‘yogi’ being the spiritualist and the ‘bhogi’ being the materialist. I think we all have both inside us. It’s just a matter of where on the scale we sit. Wherever you sit, I think it’s important to be comfortable in your position.

      About suffering, I agree with you that periods of suffering are those which propel us into sometimes life-changing decisions and actions. So like you, Nietzsche also thought that we must focus that inner eye most during periods of strife and suffering, because that will teach us most about ourselves. Also, to suffer with dignity and strength, and if possible, laugh in its face.

      Like

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