The Meaning of Suffering – Existentialism & Psychology

“The fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, “Why do I suffer?” Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.”

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, III, §28

Nietzsche points out that the problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself.

It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer. For many, it is far easier to suffer than to find joy, peace, or happiness.

However, what is meant by suffering? Suffering can be psychological or physical. Under mental suffering we find depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, stress, boredom, failure, existential malaise and more. While these admit to degrees, one could argue that any degree of any of them constitutes suffering.

Pain is the paradigm of physical suffering – one can be stabbed or have a small cut, be hungry which can range from mild discomfort to actual pain, be too hot or too cold, and so on. One becomes acquainted with more kinds of suffering the longer one lives.

Dostoevsky observes the value of suffering in a society that is desperately trying to abolish it and replace it with everlasting happiness – only to sink further into pain and suffering. Suffering is part of the human condition, and we would be much happier accepting it as it is.

He warns us against those who want to eliminate suffering:

“Shower upon man every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick.”

Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

Everything that Dostoevsky had warned against had become a reality in Russia, the utopia of communism and the increasingly nihilistic and godless society ended up causing millions upon millions of deaths.

For Carl Jung, the communist world has one big myth. It expresses the archetypal dream of a Golden Age (or Paradise), where everything is provided in abundance for everyone. Every society has its idea of the archetypal paradise or golden age that, it is believed, once existed, and will exist again. He writes:

“Unconsciously then, we too believe in the welfare state, in universal peace, in the equality of man, in his eternal human rights, in justice, truth, and in the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battle ground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I “Approaching the Unconscious”, The Soul of Man

As Jung points out, one cannot have happiness without misery. Nietzsche goes even further:

“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected that he who wants the greatest possible amount of the one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other, that he who wants to experience the ‘heavenly high jubilation’ must also be ready to be ‘sorrowful’ unto death?”

 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §12

Suffering and joy are inseparable and to enjoy great joy requires submitting oneself to the possibility of great suffering. Nietzsche disparages the preference for comfortableness over pain: those who “worship” comfort know little of happiness, since happiness and unhappiness are twins, they either grow up together, or remain small together.

However, this does not mean that happiness is a justification for our suffering. Nietzsche writes:

“The more volcanic the earth, the greater the happiness will be – but it would be ludicrous to say that this happiness justified suffering per se.”

Human, All Too Human, §591

For Nietzsche, human greatness is a goal, but human happiness is not. It is suffering, not happiness, that makes great. Since happiness is not to be desired over suffering to begin with, any happiness that results from “volcanic earth” is not going to justify our suffering. But the life-enhancing aspects of suffering do give suffering meaning because human greatness is more desirable than human happiness.

He writes:

“You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering; and we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever! Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”

Beyond Good and Evil, §225

For Nietzsche, one has to embrace suffering instead of trying to avoid it, as it is the cause of human greatness. There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us, they can be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. Suffering pervades life, however, not all of our day-to-day suffering brings in the question of meaning. One may be extremely hungry before dinner, but such “suffering” does not cry out for meaning. It is the more profound suffering – the loss of a parent, existential malaise, depression, etc. – that makes us ask, “Why do I suffer like this? What is this for?”

The goal is to find a meaning to suffering. Viktor Frankl writes:

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice… That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, after being released from the concentration camps in Germany. He believes that the primary motivational force in man is the “will to meaning”. He saw the success of his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”  as a symptom of the “mass neurosis of modern times” since the title promised to deal with the question of life’s meaningfulness.

For Frankl, one of three ways to find meaning in life is by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering, the other two are: by working or doing a deed and by love.

One who cannot bear suffering and tries to avoid the unavoidable is bound to end up in existential despair and nihilism, death is just as welcome as there’s no purpose for living.

As Dostoevsky points out: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

We also find meaning through achievement or accomplishment in our work, and finally by loving another human being, the only way to grasp the innermost core of another person’s personality.

Nietzsche states:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §12.

This lack of a “why to live for” can lead to suicide. Camus writes:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus believes that one answer to the absurdity of life is suicide. Killing oneself is a confession that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. The act of suicide is linked to the idea that life is not worth living since it is meaningless, this implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.

However, our natural reaction is to shy away from discomfort and pain. So, should we seek to abolish suffering as far as we can by removing its cause, or should we attempt to change our attitude toward suffering such that it is no longer seen as (always) undesirable?

The answers to these questions need not be mutually exclusive: it is quite possible that we might seek to avoid suffering as much as possible, but given that we will inevitably still suffer, we will not necessarily see that suffering as entirely undesirable.

However, for Nietzsche – this is not really an option. One can view suffering as undesirable which (as we’ll see) ultimately uses harmful means to provide meaning for human suffering, or one can affirm all aspects of life as a sheer act of will and give meaning to suffering through acknowledging its necessary role in human growth, flourishing and greatness.

Thus, it is our attitude toward suffering that needs to be modified. We should modify it so that we no longer see suffering as something to be avoided.

Nietzsche believes that humanity’s first attempt at solving the meaninglessness of suffering was through the ascetic ideal, the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favour of a simple, self-denying and abstinent life. It was a means for the void that encircled man, the meaninglessness of suffering, it gave him a meaning – and any meaning is better than no meaning.

For Nietzsche, it brought a more venomous suffering into life, as it is a will opposed to life. A central characteristic of the ascetic ideal is its negative valuation of life: this life and this world are to be transcended—used merely as a “bridge” to another existence.

The ascetic ideal succeeded because it had been the only ideal so far, because it had no rival. However, humans are creatures of desire whose instincts go against the ascetic ideal. Seeing this, the ascetic priest states that suffering is punishment for going against the ascetic ideal, you’re full of sin according to the Christian; you’re full of ignorance and craving according to the Buddhist. Man is made to feel guilty, man as sinner deserves to suffer. With this, not only does suffering acquire meaning, one actually welcomes more suffering. Through the sorcery of the ascetic priest:

“one no longer protested against pain, one thirsted for pain; ‘more pain! more pain!’ the desire of his disciples and initiates has cried for centuries.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §20

The ascetic ideal is a means for dealing with exhaustion and disgust with life. It brings about a kind of hypnotisation, something similar to the hibernation of animals. One removes oneself as far possible from the traffic of life with all of its inevitable painful accidents, by trying to enter into this kind of “deep sleep” and achieve freedom from suffering, but at the cost of effectively removing oneself from this world.

Nietzsche argues that the ascetic does not cure his meaninglessness, he merely diverts it with deadening drugs and hypnotism, causing ressentiment, the inferiority complex which gives way to revenge, and which is found in all those who are unhappy and sick, where it is directed against the happy and healthy. It is an imaginary revenge.

The ascetic priest sees ressentiment as dangerous if left to accumulate, as the sufferer naturally seeks a guilty party to blame for their suffering. To avoid this, the ascetic priest redirects ressentiment by means of a lie, instead of saying that the healthy are the cause of their suffering, they inform the wretched, the sick that they themselves are the cause of their suffering:

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §15

It is here that the ascetic priest provides the sufferer with not only a means for deadening the pain but also a meaning for his suffering, the answer to “why do I suffer?”

At first the guilt acts as a narcotic for their suffering, but it ultimately turns out to actually increase suffering through the intense feeling of guilt.

The ascetic priest gets the sufferer to discharge his emotions against himself.

“All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organisation as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §18

The individual is distracted from his own concerns by focusing on the needs and wellbeing of the community. All of this is encouraged by the ascetic priest. The three slogans of the ascetic ideal are:

“poverty, humility, chastity.”

Genealogy of Morals, III, §8

So, what does Nietzsche propose as an alternative ideal to give meaning to suffering? He states that a counterideal was lacking until Zarathustra:

“The fundamental conception of [Thus Spoke Zarathustra is] the idea of the eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable.”

Ecce Homo: On The Genealogy of Morals

The eternal recurrence supposes that one would want to repeat life eternally, one accepts every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in one’s life.

This is the alternative ideal for whom pain is not considered an objection to life and something to be avoided. However, Nietzsche believes that this task is only a possibility for the highest life affirmers who have embraced suffering.

Thus, there are two possibilities for the alternative ideal: to accept suffering as a means for human greatness – and only one who has done so, could ever accept the second possibility, to accept the eternal recurrence.

We can now answer the question “Why do I suffer?” with, “I suffer, not as a punishment, but in order to become better and stronger”.

Suffering and harsh conditions are required to make an individual great and fruitful. The overcoming of painful situations can be physical, psychological, or both – and one often gains a mental strength, a strength of will.

Concerning profound suffering, Nietzsche writes that:

“It almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer… Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.”

Beyond Good and Evil, §270

The order of rank supposes that humans are fundamentally unequal in their capabilities because of their physiological make-up, which affects both their physical and mental capacities. This inequality plays itself out so that there are higher types and lower types.

Those who are predetermined to be strong enough to suffer well are separated out from the lower types insofar as the latter do not suffer well. A part of suffering well is that one is made noble by it. Having suffered profoundly, the sufferer acquires a knowledge of terrible places that he alone knows about; he is prideful of his knowledge. He needs not to be pitied.

This nobility is present in those who suffer well, by those who are higher in the order of rank. The lower types, too, have gained knowledge of terrible places, but instead of feeling pride, they feel afraid – they crave the pity and safety of others.

One with a noble soul has reverence for himself. This faith in oneself is juxtaposed to that of religious faith. The higher type has a faith in himself and his capabilities; he does not need help from others to bear his suffering, nor does he need their pity. Insofar as one has this faith in oneself, one is distinguished from those of a lower rank.

In addition to suffering and having faith in oneself, the higher type willingly suffers as much responsibility as possible, while the lower type would rather take on as little responsibility as possible, for it is uncomfortable at best.

However, if some individuals are predisposed to suffer well and others poorly, and if suffering can be meaningful for its life enhancing qualities, and those who suffer poorly cannot find opportunities for enhancement in suffering, then the alternative ideal of suffering is not going to be equally available to all.

Therefore, it is only the higher type who can avoid both nihilism and asceticism. The ascetic ideal still has a role to play as the primary means for the majority of people to stave off nihilism.

To live is to suffer; to be able to embrace one’s life means being able to embrace one’s fate as a creature who is born to suffer. Seeing our suffering as meaningful for its necessary and life enhancing aspects should mean a rejection of nihilism. Further, if we couple this alternative ideal with the eternal recurrence, we affirm life at its highest:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: On the Genealogy of Morals


The Problem of Suffering – Existentialism & Psychology

The problem of suffering is its meaninglessness, rather than suffering itself. It is hard to deny that to live is to suffer, as long as we do not mean that to live is only to suffer.

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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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