We are undoubtedly doomed, yet this is our greatest blessing.
For the last several months, the concept of suffering and its social significance has been on my mind. It seems as though at the beginning of this era marked by industrial and technological advancements our own grandparents may never have thought was possible, we are facing again an existential challenge that has, for lack of a better word, stabbed at humanity since its emergence in the world as a species of self-conscious, sentient beings. The timelessness of this challenge is to me a sign of its metaphysical necessity, but I will describe my thoughts and understanding of suffering later in this article. For now, know that the central idea that is being discussed and probed here, with a consideration of potential responses and answers to various questions, is this:
In the face of so much personal suffering, how are we to understand its nature and ethically orient ourselves with the significance and reality of suffering in mind?
The Nature and Necessity
I would first like to note that to ignore, deny, or trivialize suffering is ultimately and directly, ubiquitously destructive, and any attempts to detract from the significance of personal suffering should be interpreted as an assault on the autonomy of the individual and the goodness of life and its opportunities. But, before I make too many claims to support within a single section of this article, if I haven’t already said too much, let me begin by explaining my understanding of the nature and necessity of the experience of suffering.
Without question, suffering is deeply personal and not equal or exchangeable with the experience of pain. Pain may lead to suffering, but it itself is an entirely different concept and not necessarily directly related. If I were to describe the relation between pain and suffering, I would say that suffering is like the pain of the soul, but this does not do suffering justice. Suffering is the weight that brings a champion to his or her knees, the poison that turns a good person to evil, but also the greatest source of growth and fulfillment we will ever have. It cannot be scrutinized mechanically mainly due to the fact that suffering is a product of one’s conflict with reality on the level of his/her core principles and beliefs. It is fundamental to self-consciousness and human psychology, and because of that it is unavoidable and inevitable. As stated before, attempting to deny or evade suffering is self-destructive, specifically because it is the self that suffers. The denial of suffering is therefore another method of self-denial and alienation that itself will cause more suffering.
As a phenomenon, suffering can arise as the result of two other phenomena: tragedy and evil. Many people have already given thoughtful and well-spoken analyses of the two, which I am not here to review, but I will describe their specific relation to suffering and not what differentiates the two, but reconnects them. Pain is like a psychological deterrent. When one feels pain, it is likely because one has experienced something destructive and harmful which if continued is not conducive to the general well-being and sustainability of one’s physical or mental integrity. In this way that pain subtly signals attacks on the integrity of the individual’s aspects of being, mainly physical, mental, and emotional, suffering is the experience of the wear and degradation of these aspects. Chronically feeling tired as a symptom of depression or being in a depressed state is not exactly a lack of physical energy, but more so an inability to retain or maintain energy potential within the body that would allow for the engagement of life and the indulgence of reality’s beauty and goodness. Weariness of the heart and mind likewise shows not only loss or pain that one has endured, but repeated denial of the efficacy of these systems of our existence. If pain is a sign of personal loss, suffering is the knowing that one’s defenses against such loss are at the very least pathetically ineffective, indicating that the pain one feels is not only growing overwhelmingly, but also unnecessary or arbitrarily affected upon oneself. Suffering is more so the inability to experience or sustain pleasure and other positive states than the overloading of pain.
In sudden and random instances, suffering can be caused by tragedy, which can straightforwardly be describe by the following phrase: Shit happens. In regards to our systems of value, there can be phenomena that cause suffering or joy rather accidentally. In this way, it’s more of a mechanical experience resulting from a sudden and extreme change in the conditions of one’s life, such as the loss of a home in a natural disaster, or the loss of a loved one do to accidents and disasters of another, impersonal kind. So long as we have values, we will suffer as a result of tragedy and circumstantial losses. Evil, however, is not the same. Evil is performed personally and is often rooted in the exact same denial of self and alienation that suffering in its most basic instances results from. Evil is also only possible to commit when one suffers greatly. Do not take this as an excusal of evil actions. It takes personal experience to understand this fully, but in order to willfully inflict suffering with the intention of the other’s suffering being the primary goal of the action, one must cultivate a well of suffering within oneself to draw upon. From here, we can understand…
Suffering as a Dynamic, Energetic System of Exchange
Suffering breeds more suffering and so spreads itself like a plague through the consciousness of individuals and communities. It is my understanding that since emotional states are experienced by and through egoic consciousness, an attachment to one’s identity or idea of self implies an attachment to one’s corresponding emotional states as well since fluctuating emotional states result in changes of personality and identity that can become too easily mutable if the fluctuation chaotically conflicts with a stable sense of self-identification an individuality. It is too easy to deny suffering when it seems randomly caused by another, but repeated instances of “being made to suffer” can entrench itself like a habit despite the external nature of one’s conceptualization of it, perpetuating an identity of victimhood. Like other states of consciousness, suffering is self-encapsulated and supported by a self-sustaining egoic identity, hence why disorders like depression and anxiety, though emblematic of the basic ills of human consciousness, can become a chronic mental illnesses that may take an individual years to learn to counteract. The best analogy I have to explain the nature of suffering plaguing an individual is that of old wounds which never properly or fully healed. The old emotional scarring and trauma caused by alienation and denial of self can leave wounds which when agitated will reignite the old pain through association of one’s current circumstances with that trauma, enabled by our inherent psychological tendency to look for patterns in our experience and memory. Suffering in such ways is clearly irrational and circumstantial, but our psychological habits don’t allow us to so easily dismiss such affronts to egoic integrity. Eventually, the experience of suffering becomes not just inevitable, but an expected norm as well, and the mind begins to perceive causes for suffering in anything that it can be associated with, even going so far as to identify with the pattern of suffering on a personal level.
This is not inherently destructive, but the intensity of this experience can quickly lead an individual to adopt behavioral patterns and attitudes that accept experiencing suffering and inflicting suffering as necessary human qualities and communal actions rather than simply phenomenological occurrences in self-consciousness. No matter the moral integrity of an individual’s character, suffering will perpetuate itself until resolved on the fundamental level of one’s being. The individual will dive into suffering’s depths until it is something more than a human tendency, at the risk of giving way completely to suffering and its perpetuation of self-infliction and psychological projection onto other individuals. The manner and methods of this suffering and infliction of suffering builds upon itself until the individual develops what we recognize as sadistic and masochistic tendencies, which for the purpose of this article I will identify as types of personal systems which exchange suffering.
Before explaining suffering in terms of personal styles or methods of expression, I’ll illustrate the psychological distinctions of the individual’s relation to being and the Self.
At the center of human experience is a deep reverence for and fear of being. Reverence enough to provoke some to religiosity, and fear enough to cripple some and condemn them to an early death before the heart ever stops beating, a death of the soul. Surrounding this perceived significance is suffering and joy, or pain and pleasure as some would refer to it, though I think this word choice exposes a certain kind of reductionism that is unnecessary and trivializing. The suffering is the gate to the fear, and the joy is the gate to the mystifying, awe-inspiring reverence. People generally want to only view the relation this dichotomous way, but the reciprocal is also true. The awe can inspire joy and the fear can itself provoke suffering, so the link is not causal but correlative; furthermore, in the either most or least fortunate individuals, feedback loops may solidify someone to either side of the duality, cycling their experience like a self-fulfilling and repeating prophecy. This being is so integral that it even prompts some to craft an entire metaphysic-defining mythos to encapsulate their opinions and beliefs about the experience, but that endeavor is not necessary for this duality in perception to be true.
The joy is not greater or lesser than the suffering in potential, though its actual affect on the human experience varies so much from person to person that little can be said about it aside from what has been briefly outlined here, its being in duality and ineffable relational complexity. However, the suffering and our involvement in it has reached such complicated and convoluted socio-cultural interpretations that there are some who genuinely believe that it is as manageable as a schedule of one’s responsibilities, as arbitrary and personal as they are too. On the contrary, though suffering can be affected by the will and capacities or abilities of a person, its fundamentally essential to the human experience. To be human is to occasionally err, to err is tragic, and tragedy spreads suffering as if they were the same in nature. Not causally related, but positively correlated in phenomenological presence, meaning their relation is like that of opposing sides of one coin. To fear the suffering is to suffer the fears. The reason for the fear, however, lies not simply in suffering, but in particular tragically suffering.
Styles of Suffering and Evil; Sadism & Masochism
Most people respond to suffering in either of two ways. Some curse its perpetuation and project it to others hoping to be rid of it and instead experience joy or pleasure, whereas some internalize and swallow it, burying it within themselves or continuously breathing its fumes like rancid air that makes one sick. Those who project and internalize suffering do so in the manner of following some balance of extremes, either forcing their suffering onto others in the hopes they would alleviate the pain, or turning it like a knife onto themselves in the hopes that their own pain does note exacerbate that of others, but for which they continuously and frequently suffer. Many people in the turbulence of suffering do look for some remedy, rightly and understandably so, yet they imagine that either they can will themselves to be less like a deadly, depressing burden for having suffered or they think that the good graces of others will have mercy on them and either coddle them or end their misery all-together. Both are foolish, perpetuate the pain of suffering, and can eventually be morphed into something more disastrously sinister.
Though the silent sufferer who bears their curse is the cause of less crime in society, they are just as culpable for the pain that is perpetuated by tragedy, as they still gather victims of their pathology. They bear their burdens in the guise of strength and good will, pretending others don’t notice through their facades and that others aren’t bothered and disturbed by their self-martyrdom. The condescending attitude of being so good at heart that one’s own suffering matters not in the face of such potential for pain in others sickens some people who are keen to noticing the intention to the point of shunning or shaming the sufferer, only adding to their bank of pathetic wallowing. Any resistance to the suffering only strengthens it in perception, as it makes it significant enough to be worth resisting, though at times we have no choice if we wish to maintain peace in our communities. And so the silent sufferer lives in fear of the time when they may not be able to contain their suffering, letting it spill forth, contradicting their would-be good nature with selfishness and shame for being less “good” than they could be. This further increases the depth of suffering this person feels.
Similarly, though with notable discrepancies, the projecting sufferer lives in constant fear of himself – this style in its assertiveness being more so the preference or habit of most men and other primarily masculine persons – and his potential for bringing destruction to bear. The silent sufferer seeks goodness for the sake of niceties, a sweet sugar-coating, but this projector wishes truly for good and joy, but inevitably finds himself as the cause for much suffering in others and as the target of many others’ causes as well, and so he suffers twofold. This projector would restrain in himself so much of the impetus for liberation, a most prevalent and notable cause for suffering given its dualistic relation to nihilism, that his own feelings would betray his efforts for goodness as he resists in futile the will to be free of particularly moral constraints. Like the silent sufferer’s politeness, the boundaries of morality and ethical norms ironically cause almost as much harm to freedom and the experience of joy and personal goodness in human interactions, as many individuals are afraid of punishment for failing to follow said norms and standards. People cannot be completely free of suffering until death or ignorance takes them. The projecting sufferer knows this whereas the silent sufferer tends to naively ignore suffering’s necessity, or to revolt against its expression.
But the projecting sufferer through the projection is the cause of more exposing of suffering, having to continuously build up suffering to project it. Whether through violence towards other or the acceleration of the breaking down of poorly managed relationships, this sufferer gives suffering to others in the hopes they would better handle it, or better suffer, so as to end it quickly and externally. Either sufferer can switch extremes towards which their behavior bends, but people tend to adopt particular styles depending on their disposition, save for the passionately sadomasochistic and the evil. Suffering, like any other passion is like a personality all to itself, self-perpetuating and self-sustained through a metamorphosis of the psyche until it is self-engrossed. Its acceptance is unpopular in at least many Western cultures, to say the least — various cultures have different relationships to suffering and joy, ranging from the secular and conceptual to the religious and idealistic; little can be said for all humanity aside from that we suffer personally and deeply — and as such it causes much conflict and dissonance in those most resistant to it or fixated on it, namely the silent sufferers with a tendency towards masochism who se the acceptance of suffering as an insult to the goodness of being on principle, despite their confusion on how to relate to such goodness in a manner not solely superficial. Though the projecting sufferer is more inclined to accept the existence of suffering, their repugnance is more so an effect of their inability to accept their own suffering. But which manner of suffering could we say is more tragic?
Is suffering produced from tragedy different than suffering produced by evil? And if so, can we measure it in order to more precisely and accurately regulate ourselves and thereby our suffering towards a manner which is optimal? Tragedy, much like suffering, is unavoidable, repetitious, and fundamentally relative to one’s own values. It is not commonly held or understood that inflicting suffering or malevolence is something inescapable despite the determinism of teleological imperatives, necessary prerequisites for fulfilling a specific set of conditions for a goal’s achievement, suggesting otherwise. People die, losses accumulate, and if we are not able to detach our own identity from an object of subject of our experiences, we are apt to feel as if we are losing a part of ourselves when, for example, a personal treasure or loved one is lost. I do not mean to suggest that we should be distant and avoidant enough so that this detachment is easy, but we should be aware of its significance and necessity in properly regulating oneself and one’s habits. Denial of this is denial of the self and its fundamental tendency to attach, and so it is also another cause for suffering. But how much tragedy and how much suffering can one be expected to withstand before it “gets out”?
The goodness and virtue of the silent sufferer is in their acknowledgement of the potential for others joy, and the virtue of the projecting sufferer is in their acknowledgement of the good itself to which they rightfully have a claim to pursue. But what causes us to accuse some of evil, rather than to say that a good person was just broken down by tragic, supposedly unnecessary suffering? Is it the readiness to promote or provoke suffering? Every stern lecture could be said to be the malevolently refusing to allow somebody their naïve innocence, but is it not also true that the refusal to learn, grow, and impose one’s own being, suffering and all, that causes some to commit evil unto themselves in the manner of denial of self? And doesn’t this, being not as criminally punishable as violent repulsions or selfish assertiveness would be, make of itself more a cause for the prevalence of suffering than evil against others which is more sporadic and consciously meticulous in its denial of goodness? The projecting sufferer can only be evil if they intend to creating suffering in another or systems of suffering that affect others directly, but the casual superficiality with which the silent sufferer refers to goodness can condemn all that sincerely socialize with them to condescendence and objectification, to be a means to the silent one’s own self-denial. A projecting sufferer attracts violence and contempt with every expression of suffering, and so they suffer more for the density of their suffering rather than the volume of it, and for its active assertiveness rather than its disgusting exposure.
To suffer is tragic itself and so prompts more suffering in either style or system, but confrontation and contest is just what the projecting sufferer wants to alleviate the pain of suffering, an immovable wall to stop them completely, physically rather than the futility of psychological suppression. Learning to change one’s own attitudes and intentions is the path out of this suffering, but the path further inwards that revels in the suffering is the path chosen by those who would be evil. The silent sufferer, for all the niceties, is evil in his/her denial of suffering’s inevitability and continuity, denying that one could grow through suffering, and in the lies told, saying to him/herself that everyone can be and stay happy if I just continue to be as good and innocent as I pretend myself to be by nature. These are sicknesses both, but one is born of tragedy, causing tragedy, whereas the other is inherently more malevolent for its innate denial of an intrinsic right to goodness and fulfillment in life. Rather, it is the malevolent denial of goodness for oneself or another that marks evil, in either style, apart from tragedy.
A violent sadist is evil, but so too is the self-dejecting masochist. A violent sadist is selfishly destructive in their denial of the right for good in others, but the silent masochist disguises their denial of their own right for good with lies that bastardize joy as a superficial treat to be admired and forcibly maintained instead of a mystical wonder. And through their self-deception, the silent masochist’s suffering poisons all they are and do, whereas at least the sadist can be satisfied and paused. People do not fear the masochist as much as they do the sadist, as much as they should. Where the sadist is a monstrous predator, the masochist is a nihilistic living black hole.
Wholeness in Suffering
But it might be here that we find the saving of the silent sufferer. That nature must be explored and discovered in order to fully experience the horror of its suffering, but the projecting sufferer is all too ready to reveal his/her depravity. In being less well-known, the silent sufferer is able to not provoke as much fear as would the projecting sufferer, instead opting to manipulate others typically through deceit and the repression of authentic expressions of the self. It may also be reasonable to say that the aim of morality is in preventing tragic suffering rooted in fear than it is in preventing the suffering tragically received from evil. But this too is unpopular and controversial too expose without itself, inadvertently or not, criticizing ethics and the notion of moral virtue.
the purpose of ethics is for judgement, but morality is only a system of judging or evaluating. Decisions are done after the necessary judgements are made on what is “just” or “right”, appropriate, or simply preferred. But, is it right and moral to punish those victimized by, and suffering themselves, due to tragedy? Those not yet evil? Surely, punishing these individuals will have a contrary effect, making them increasingly more likely to act violently or malevolently towards others (especially those associated with the systems of punishment in society), yet our society often treats punishment as if it deters undesired behavior, despite the significant amount of psychological research suggesting punishment does little but breed resentment towards the punisher and teach the person being punished to not get caught the next time. With increasing disdain for the supposed moral authority, it only makes sense that individuals blamed and punished for suffering would grow hostile and antagonistic towards those assuming authority and moral superiority, whether by agreeing or identifying with the moral authority. In the mind of the sufferer, this justifies the malevolence they feel and harbor, and gives them the option for an inclination to evil which is actualized.
We already understand that suffering provides the potential for growth, but it is hard to describe and harder to understand how the individual’s ability to judge others and oneself gives the individual the opportunity to seek either good or evil, joy or suffering. However, because of the nature of the good, more would choose that without much consideration, and because of the nature of evil and the prevalence of tragedy, there would be a strong social pressure to refrain from ever using suffering for egotistic rewards, regardless of the varying degrees to which the severity of one’s actions is negatively or positively correlated with the sincerity of one’s intent to address the core of the problem of suffering so that the pain can give way to growth, and the suffering can be healed. It is technically just as punishable (though I doubt it would actually come to this because of idiosyncrasies and personal biases) to kill someone intentionally and out of petty spite as it is to kill someone for having exploited or abused a loved one, though we should not assume that this is true morally, as that would conflate the social norms and legal and judicial standards of a society with objective morality or assert that morality is fundamentally culturally relative (in which case there’s no point making claims at all because there’s no such thing as objective values).
What purpose then do we have for punishment? Is it simply where we focus the sadistic tendencies of mass psychology? Don’t we now focus the masochistic tendency onto those suffering yet not evil, telling them all the while “stay good, or else”? I do not believe these tendencies are objective, as they vary greatly between those differing in linear or non-linear thinking, and they are necessarily impacted by the subject’s perception and recognition of both pain/pleasure relations and good/bad relations. However, in every person, there is still the all-too-real capacity not just for harm, but for evil. Enough potential exists in us to provoke and spread suffering with no concern for any objective good, only the desire to be selfishly gratified by the suffering of others, the suffering of oneself, or both. It is often destructive for destruction’s sake, egotistical, and rooted in irrational claims about the nature of reality, moral quality, and humanity.
We ought not to wish suffering upon anyone who doesn’t need it, but we must also recognize the impulse to make others suffer stems from suffering internally and feeds on one’s resentment towards pain, so the suffering we wish to use as punishment, if we should ever use punishment, should be a practical reminder of the degrees of pain one can feel and a lesson as to the futility of vengeance against moral judgement. For all of the pain surrounding suffering, it provides direct moral education, a way to derive meaning from absurdity, and it enriches one’s personal experience by allowing for growth and individuation in relation to this dynamic cycle of experience. It keeps one aware that they are required to be integrated into their existence, to be present and conscious, or else everything may fall apart and devolve into destruction. If pain is the reminder to stay alert, suffering is the reminder to stay alive. But suffering is not goodness. Not only do we all suffer tragically, but many of us, despite what our initial intentions may have been, have probably done something negligently that caused either ourselves or others to suffer unnecessarily, and some of us have gone so far as to intentionally do something evil. But, though the memory and its associations will be marred by that suffering and pain, individuals and masses of people can even grow and heal from the suffering caused by evil. It is much more difficult because of the traumatic nature of malevolence, and it is heavily discouraged in social interactions, but it is a fundamental aspect of our morality and moralizing.
To liberate oneself from the cycle of suffering and joy is equal to disassociating one’s identity from one’s experience of suffering and joy, distancing them without suppressing them completely; furthermore, to acknowledge one’s relation to the suffering/joy cycle as something which changes in degree according to circumstances and their relation to one’s own mediation of existence is to acknowledge the lack of necessity for morality in particularly making a decision. Morality is a system of judgement, of stating and claiming values for certain objects or phenomena. If one inflates the suffering by identifying with it and resisting or failing to choose to continue the cycle of self expression into other emotional experiences, it is only a matter of time and idiosyncrasy which determines when one would become, morally speaking, evil. However, this is unavoidable given the nature of self’s reflective and associative existence, meaning we will almost always identify our self with our suffering unless we have consciously trained ourselves either not to or to always un-associate the two afterwards. Suffering is as much a part of our reality as is happiness or satisfaction, so fixation on one will cause problems because of you would be choosing to ignore something true about reality, that both are prevalent and necessary for either to exist. But, this does not meant hat we should want to suffer. Instead, we should understand its value and sacrifice-like contribution to life’s goodness.
Lastly, I would like to note that this has been a synopsis of my understanding of suffering/joy experiences and the tendency for moralizing attitudes to be expressed in regards to the expression of suffering, but not nearly as often in regards to expressions of joy, creating a damning loop of suffering and denial within this (American) society, or societies like this one I’m in. I have not made any exhaustive or comprehensive claims about morality and its significance and utility or evil and its nature/reality. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that all evil is the direct result of tragically suffering, as that would take away from the horror and brutality of individuals who are personally inclined to specifically antisocial behavior and immensely destructive exploitation of their environment, or those who use power to exploit others for egotistical gains and moralistic supremacy.