Suffering, Angst, and Ought

Recently, I’ve been learning more about the modern political climate in America and the influences of some ideologies that are arguably more pervasive than they are publicly given credit for by mainstream media outlets. I’ve been on somewhat of an information binge the last few days listening to as many lectures, podcast episodes, and independent news reports as I could fit into my free time, and it’s left me with a few observations of people’s characters. I shall list them here and comment on the ideas as well as the implications of people’s being influenced and motivated by these philosophies and psychological formulations.

Many people do not have a thought-out understanding of suffering or its significance to human consciousness.

Considering the tendency for some to pathologically justify their inflicting suffering on others by claiming their own suffering is unwarranted and undeserved, I have contemplated again my understanding of the nature of suffering and whether it is inherent to the human experience, whether it can effectively vary by degrees or intensities from person to person, and whether it can justifiably be said that anyone in particular deserves a certain amount or degree of suffering.

As far as I can interpret the psychological being of humans through observing their behaviors and expressions with all of the theories and research that I have learned of in reference, I believe it is right to claim that suffering is inherent to the human experience. Not only is suffering a necessary contrast to the joys and fulfillment of our experience that gives us the degrees of meaning and significance by which we understand the world and our relationship to it, but it seems that the human person, even individuated and self-fulfilling, cannot fully escape the ever-looming potential and very real tendency to slip into self-perpetuating suffering, whether through pain, displeasure, or lack of fulfillment. In fact, the pathological tendency to accept suffering can at times be seen as voluntary where an individual will choose to remain immature and suffer rather than take on the responsibility of overcoming suffering and the tragic tendencies of life. It is very easy to be brought down, but easier still to refuse to rise and grow one’s character and to remain a victim to the natural injustices and inequalities of existence.

Some would even cite these inequalities and injustices as justification for a sort of destructive anger which they express as a seemingly nihilistic response to the subjective nature of meaning and value, and the objective challenge to justify an unsatisfactory existence. In what seems like a refusal to make this justification, they instead put their efforts into spreading their suffering outward as if they could diffuse it into those they judged as undeservedly suffering less. Whereas despair would prompt some to consider suicide, these angry few instead turn their suffering not into sorrow but rage, and instead of drowning in isolation and alienation, they burn from within and seek to light all else aflame. This seems to be the way of those who respond to the existential challenge with self-destruction rather than self-preservation.

It is my understanding that in most cases, what is prudent, and so good for oneself, is also what is moral and for the good of others as well. I argue against self-destruction because it has a tendency to damn others who need not be associated with the pathological sufferer, and self-fulfillment is naturally a more satisfying and rewarding mode of existence than one sustained and perpetuated by suffering instead of the drive to overcome it, and it also has a tendency to inspire and support others in a way contrary to the mutual destruction of the pathological sufferer.

Many people do not understand the existential challenge, and consequently do not know how to respond to angst.

Just as every person has a great potential for both suffering and fulfillment, ever person must actively respond to and justify their existence if they want to exist in a state other than suffering. The world is very troubling, wrought with suffering, pain, and inequality, and it is by no means any particular individual’s fault, but each and every individual has the potential to shift the measures of the values we hold for better or worse. Psychologically, when we are doubtful of the potential for positive meaning and fulfillment, we experience angst as a kind of fear and concern that no matter what we do, existence will not sufficiently be justified and suffering will be all that we truly know. This is not the kind of thing that is necessarily false, however. If we do not accept the challenge of existence and strive to make positive meaning where we can by growing and developing ourselves and our endeavors and skills to the point of refinement and practical worth, we will suffer and it will be for no better purpose. But, if we can harness the emotional intensity of suffering and transmute it into a sort of energy like the burning of fuel, we can draw strength from much of the suffering we experience and funnel that strength into actions meant to improve the quality of existence, whether it is our own or that of others we care for, and we can create rather than destroy ourselves and potentially others.

This is by no means an easy task, because as I said earlier, the world is wrought with much suffering and shouldering the burden of taking responsibility for suffering and fulfillment is not something that can be accomplished without bravery, compassion, and probably some stubbornness. In the face of nihilism, when it seeks to corrupt our hearts and minds, we must devise our own values for our own reasons, and live in support and devotion to these values with a fervor like that of religious devotees. Indeed, we must worship the goodness we aim to bring about into manifestation; otherwise, our efforts will be insincere, and motivated by petty circumstantial gains which in themselves do little to combat the immense pain that life inevitably comes with. The world is dismal and maddening, but we have the responsibility, the power, and every right to do as much as we can to make positive meaning and fulfillment where we are able. And where we are not able, we focus on educating ourselves and working together so that we may eventually be able. This is the way of growth and positive expansion that tempers the collapsing suffering that continually threatens us.

In regards to the existential challenge humans face, many do not consider why understanding and responding to this challenge properly is important.

Previously, I mentioned nihilism. It is a false comfort that claims to bring peace in the manner of making all meaning ultimately subjective and relative. What this does, however, is reduce meaning to nothing more than the intensity of personal emotion, making value nothing more than an unjustifiable claim by one individual motivated by selfish reasons. What’s troubling to me is that I believe nihilism must be encountered and challenged on a personal level in order to truly be able to combat it. I do not think that any ideology, theory, set of facts, or good intentions can sufficiently counter the intensely depressive claims of nihilism. To assert that existence, in any form or mode, has no intrinsic meaning is to say that nothing, neither our suffering nor our joy or fulfillment, is valuable in any way, and that assuming there is value to be found in existence is deluded and foolish. This belief is so dangerous that people corrupted and possessed by it often find themselves on a fast path to self-destruction, and they are sometimes willing to take as much of existence with them as they go. Suffering unmediated is very dangerous. Sometimes, I fear that by even talking about it, I may prompt some fear and begin a spiral of decay and depression in somebody who is not prepared to face the challenge that existence poses, but if what I wish to be true about our abilities to create meaning and fulfillment in our lives is to be understood and valued by others, I must have faith in my fellow human persons and trust that even the suffering we experience is a tool and a lesson that helps us to create ever more positive meaning to compensate for the vastness of negativity that defines so much of our lives. I call this the existential challenge because I see no other challenge or ambition as being greater or more significant to the human experience than this. We will suffer, it is inevitable. The challenge is thus: What will you do about it, and how will you justify your actions?

If you believe in value, you must accept that there are higher values than others. Still, there may even be a highest value. Aristotle recognized this as the Good, that which is necessarily the best of values, and that which all endeavors, actions, and ambitions strive to fulfill. Understanding this highest good is not easy, and it is not easily identified, but I am beginning to wonder whether it is being itself. Not being in any particular fashion, but, if being was like an art for which there are many methods, the highest good may be preserving being against the lack of value that would seek nothing more than the destruction and defiling of existence with rampant suffering. If suffering is all that we truly have, then all, even the suffering, is meaningless and valueless. But if we meet this suffering with values we embody and carry with us throughout our lives, we can go so far as to justify all of it in the name of the greatest good we can see. This is how ethics and morality are derived from understanding existentialism, and how one can make being alive worth it.

The Featured Photo is a segment of Alexadre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel. I chose this to demonstrate the natural progression of suffering to resentment that people experience in life, but to also highlight the fact that combating nihilism and suffering is a challenge that must be accepted and undertaken. It doesn’t happen on its own.

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