Valuing Suffering?

If pleasure is the only guide, then any addict with enough money to get what they want is our model.

Suffering gets a bad press, understandably. Who wants to suffer? It is not pleasant, and it can go on for years. It seems so obvious that we should value pleasure. It is so obvious that I want to question this.

A lifestyle of pleasure is promoted quite relentlessly by our media. Holidays are for sensual indulgence, and food is about taste, not health. We should buy clothes that look good and make us feel good. And yet this is a curious kind of pleasure. It is pleasure that we are expected to work hard for. It is admirable to work so hard that we need a holiday — working at an easy job part-time is somehow not as admirable. “Work hard, play hard” is somehow promoted at the same time as the valuing of pleasure.

If pleasure is the guide then the addict with enough money to get what they want is our model (or at least one model). They value pleasure — all they need is enough of the stuff they are addicted to. It can be a drug, or applause, another item for the collection, or the next adventure. The addict is happy when their want is met. They are often dedicated and focused in their efforts to get their wants met.

There are traditions that question the value of pleasure. I grew up in one of them — fundamentalist-cum-evangelical-Christianity. By this I don’t mean the inhibited and deliberate approach to life that was so much of my experience of this kind of life. This is often enough just neurosis. I have something far deeper in mind: seeing martyrdom as a positive action. To embrace death (sometimes a quite painful one) for a ‘higher’ purpose puts a very big question mark over pleasure as the highest value. In other traditions, there is self-immolation — and Socrates voluntarily drinking the hemlock.

The person I personally know who has the greatest suffering is someone I’ll call Norah (not her real name). Norah suffered physical and sexual abuse from her family. After leaving her family she had a couple of quite unsatisfactory sexual relationships with men. She has a son who is a credit to her and who is not only intellectually gifted but kind and considerate. He is a joy to her. Norah has a degenerative disease — with no known cure or any prospect of one — so that she is continually in pain. A number of years ago, opiates stopped working to dull the pain. How she manages to stay alive I don’t know. She is very principled and contributes to others and their lives in many ways. Norah really is an extraordinarily remarkable person.

Norah’s suffering is awful. There is no one who wouldn’t want it to stop. But (barring a miracle) it’s not going to stop. So what is there to say to someone like Norah? Is her suffering of no value? Is anaesthesia or analgesia all we have to offer? And what about when that stops working?

These are awful questions to ask. And yet there are many, many people in similar situations.

I don’t want ever to suggest that suffering is good. I do think we need to offer something other than hedonism (the doctrine that life is the enjoyment of pleasure).

I have spent some time in my life listening to people. And so I have heard stories from people that other people didn’t want to listen to. Some of the stories were of quite awful suffering and hardly pleasant to listen to. Some of these times of listening are also amongst the most precious in my life. I hesitate to call them sacred, but they do have a quality of depth that I haven’t experienced in more day to day events. When the other person and I can be present with the core of who we are then there is a quality to the relationship that is profoundly nourishing (however dreadful the kinds of things I was listening to).

I must say at this point that it is not the suffering that brings the depth to the experience. We can experience this depth sharing joyous experiences, too — and these are to be very much preferred as far as I’m concerned. What I do want to say though is that life can include suffering. Hedonism can’t easily take account of these kinds of experiences — where somehow suffering does not just destroy life.

In more humble ways, too, we embrace suffering. We put ourselves to inconvenience to help our friends, and parents often embrace much suffering for the sake of their children.

Suffering may not be good, but there are some kinds of suffering that are surely bad. Some self-inflicted suffering is neurotic and awful. If we suffer in a (probably) hopeless cause, this may be noble — or just plain dumb.

I don’t want to propose giving suffering a positive value; neither do I want to promote pleasure as being the major value in life. This seems a big dilemma to me and I don’t have a simple way forward. I do think that while sometimes suffering does make life not worth living, there are other times when suffering is one part of life.

This post may have been difficult to read. It was certainly difficult to write: lots of pauses and much hesitation. I want to make clear that I am not claiming to have answers or resolutions — and certainly am not presuming to pass judgement on anyone suffering or offering advice about what they should do about it. I have written this because suffering is part of life for many people we meet. I want us to be open to our own and others’ suffering. Sometimes this can lead us to having profound experiences with them.

How has suffering affected you? Has it been negative? Have you gained from it? I would like to hear your responses to the suffering of yourself and others. Let me know in the comments to this post.

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