Thursday, May 03, 2007

Is There Meaning To Suffering?

"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

- Elizabeth Kubler Ross


At times, the last thing anyone of us wants to believe is that our suffering is meaningless. Everyone suffers. That seems to be an universal truth. And nearly everyone finds some meaning, some purpose in their sufferings.

Ross is not alone in suggesting that our sufferings are redeemed by their potential to turn us into more beautiful people. Many of us believe that. Or, as Nietzsche famously said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger." The impulse to find meaning in suffering is a strong one.

How many of us actually entertain the thought there is no meaning to suffering? Perhaps very few of us do. I know when I suffer, my first instinct is to look for meaning. I want my suffering to stand for something greater than itself. It is like swimming against a current to entertain the thought that it might be meaningless.

7 comments:

jacquie4000 said...

Sometimes I may feel my suffering is meaningless at the moment I am going through an ordeal. But as I reflect back, I can see how it has made me more wise, or how I have grown from that experience.

Brendan said...

Meaning is subjective. So the meaning is whatever one imputes to what one is calling suffering. But don't forget, "suffering" itself is a fluid concept that arises out of perspective as well. This is why communication between people is so difficult, it is very difficult to reasonably consider and appreciate that perspective determines the meaning of things like suffering and truth when talking or corresponding with other people.

Ed Yong said...

I think you can draw meaning from suffering by realising that, as Nietzsche suggests, you will end up stronger for it. But to me, that involves facing up to the situation, taking responsibility for any actions that might have led up to it, or if it comes down to it, realising that it's just one of those things that happens and moving on.

However, I don't agree with ascribing one's suffering as part of a greater plan. I don't believe that you can draw meaning from suffering in this way (nor do I think this is what Ross or Nietzsche meant.

To continue your analogy Paul, I would advocate allowing yourself to get swept away by the current to see what new shores you get washed up on.

decrepitoldfool said...

I recently realized the instinct to look for meaning in suffering, is at the root of why some people cannot admit to certain wars being a mistake.

makita said...

Although I cannot believe there is "meaning" to suffering, I do believe that exposure to setbacks can strengthen character, and increase empathy. I think the word "meaning" intrinsically implies some kind of overseeing, supernatural being in charge and casting his/her verdict on unbelieving, deserving souls. Maybe my association isn't entirely fair, but that's what I think of when I confront the words "meaning of suffering." I've certainly had a more than my fair share, and I can't imagine that their would be some kind of purpose to it. And if there is, frankly, I'd rather be unfeeling bitch, thank you.

Trinifar said...

Perhaps it is not so much about finding meaning in suffering but rather how some people are able to deepen their understanding of themselves and how they connect to others by exaiming their suffering, understanding what happened, and learn to accept the world the way it is rather than how they wish it to be.

Paul said...

Excellent comments, everyone! You're giving me much to think about here!