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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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