The Benefit of Suffering

In Episode 001 of Ignited with Meaning with guest Adria Goodness, I posed a question along the lines of “If you had a magic wand, would you wave away all the mental distress women experience in pregnancy and early motherhood?”

I wanted to know not just for this particular demographic, but because I wonder about this more broadly. And for myself, given the life I have right now, would I like my life more or less if I didn’t experience and grow through the suffering I’ve had to navigate through?

In other words, is there benefit in suffering? If so, what is that benefit?

One thing I’m fairly certain of is for my own life, had I not experienced a high level of anxiety in my early adulthood I would have explored the inward path less and the outward path more.  For example, without suffering I would not have taken up meditation in such an earnest fashion. It’s also unlikely that I would have read dozens of books on happiness, which led me to take on this question of “what’s the meaning of life?”

On the other hand, had I experienced less suffering, I might have had more confidence and freedom to explore the external world. As an example, when I had the opportunity to travel internationally with a non-profit I choose not to earnestly pursue it because of both general anxiety and some physical health problems.

Wanting to learn more about the topic, I did a survey of literature to better understand who was talking about this… and I found one book. That’s it. There might be more, but clearly the topic of the benefit of suffering in not an idea that is widely discussed in popular literature.

Maybe its just luck, but the one book I read,  James Davies’ book “The Importance of Suffering” does a phenomenal job of exploring our relationship to suffering, putting suffering in the context of today’s society, how attitudes about suffering have changed over time, and page after page of insight on the ways suffering can be productive or unproductive.

As a foundation for his thought on the topic, Davies cites how while today’s society (especially Western thought) views suffering as a thing to be eliminated, various cultures today value suffering as “a catalyst for human transformation.” Even Western culture held this view at other times throughout history.

Building on this foundational view, here are some other key insights I picked up from Davies’ book that have been interesting for me to think about how they apply to my life:

#1 There are two types of suffering: productive suffering and unproductive suffering.

I love this insight. Just like the fact that coffee and wine are both good and bad for you, this is the key insight that spans so much wisdom – that there are two truths that co-exist at the same time. Some suffering just sucks, while other types of suffering can have a productive purpose.

So, what’s the difference between the good and bad kind of suffering? This leads us to insight number 2:

#2 Productive suffering results from leveraging the suffering that is presenting itself to reach greater levels of realization.  

Davies talks a lot about suffering as a natural response to the conflicts we experience in the struggle for greater self-realization. This perspective invites us to welcome suffering in as a signal that it is time to keep moving and pushing ourselves to the next level. Unfortunately, this invitation can often be met with resistance, which brings us to the insight number 3:

#3 There is an ongoing internal conflict between the tendency for conformity and the tendency for realization.

As creatures of habit, we sometimes reject the early signals that suffering is providing to us, and try to then suppress our suffering by anesthetizing it through escapist activities, drugs, and maladjusted perspective. There is a good reason for this – staying where we are feels like it’s going to be easy. There’s no guarantee that dealing with the primary suffering is going to work on the first try.

Which brings us to our 4th insight:

#4 Overcoming our primary problems that result in suffering might take a lot of work and result in more suffering before you see the benefit of dealing with it. 

It’s like housecleaning – even if we want the result of a clean house, we might not want to do the housecleaning to get there. In the case of meaning, because it is so complex, maybe its more like a persistent stain on a carpet that try as hard as we can, we can’t quite find the cleaning solution that works or scrub hard enough to get it out. We might ultimately need to bring in a professional carpet cleaner who has the experience and skills to help us get that stain out. Translating that into real terms, you might need a skilled therapist or life coach who can help you uncover the root problem and guide you through to a meaningful solution. And dealing with that solution might invoke more suffering if the change we need to make is met with resistance by those around us.

#5 There can be significant benefit from confronting suffering by dealing with our primary problems.

Because suffering often presents itself as a catalyst for greater self actualization, by dealing with that suffering head on we might find all sorts of new benefits. Benefits could include resolution of a internal conflict helping us to achieve greater clarity with respect to life direction, or resolution of an external conflict such as an unhealthy relationship dynamic or an oppressive social context. By diving into the depths of our suffering and being willing to deal with the discomfort, we can emerge with new qualities, such as a greater awareness of ourselves and others. We might develop a deeper level of compassion for those undergoing suffering. We might also gain the confidence that when suffering comes for a visit, we can handle it and re-emerge with a greater sense of purpose or renewal.

Going back to the question that inspired me to find a book on the topic, if we could, would we eliminate mental distress and all the suffering caused by it? I think that the answer is that it depends. If we could change our paradigm to value suffering as a catalyst for human transformation, and if we had the resources and road maps in place to help people navigate through their depression to help them realize their potential when they can’t do that themselves, and if we had ways to help people discern suffering which could result in growth and transformation vs. meaningfulness depression that is purely biological in nature, then no, we wouldn’t want to wipe mental distress away.

If all those things were true, then suffering is almost like the equivalent of a personal growth accountability buddy, who shows up to make sure you’re not slacking off, in which case we should welcome suffering’s presence to make sure that we haven’t become personal growth couch potatoes.

But at the same time, those are a lot of “if’s.” And if we go back to the original demographic for which this question was posed, women who are about to enter or who have just entered motherhood, that’s a helluva time to decide that something like 25% of women need a personal growth accountability buddy, especially since a lot of the contingencies I outlined are not in place.

And that’s what makes Adria’s work so critical in expanding services. I think that she nailed it when she answered the question of what’s the difference between women who go through mental distress and come out the other side saying that they were able to use that experience to find something meaningful and those who don’t. Her answer was that those who have a guide and access to the right services do, and those who don’t just wind up with a short or long term period of unproductive suffering.

But therein lies the two-fold opportunity, both for ourselves and for helping others. For those who are experience suffering, there is an opportunity to figure out how to re-cast the experience to push yourself to the next level, while those who have been through it have the opportunity to find meaning in helping others navigate those same waters.

In my happiness research, it has always been interesting to think about how we can re-frame negative emotions to make them more useful and even exciting. Davies does this for suffering in the same way that the Dalai Lama teaches us how to transform guilt and other challenging emotions in The Art of Happiness and Kelly Mcgonigal’s TED talk teaches us How to Make Stress Your Friend.

For me, while I won’t say that I’m looking for a visit from suffering anytime soon, I will say that I now have a few more tools to use it for personal transformation should it give me a visit. And as much as no one is really asking for suffering to come their way, let’s face it, none of us has a magic wand to delete suffering from the planet, so when it comes, let’s figure out how to embrace it and work through it together.

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