The Beauty of Suffering

Arrows and happiness

Goals are a funny thing. Each person has their own unique list of checkboxes that need to be ticked for them to feel happy - some are longer; some are shorter; some are uninspired, and others are horribly complex, or even unrealistic. Still, the fact remains - we all have goals, in some shape or form.

The concept seems simple: a goal is a target propped on our horizon that we steadily aim at with our metaphorical bow-and-arrow. The what seems clear to us, but things start to break down a bit when we consider the why. One might go so far as to ask:

What is the goal of goals?

As with any remotely philosophical discussion, a good place to start is ancient Greece. Epicurus, and the Stoics a century later, would maintain that the goal of goals should be 'eudaimonia' (εὐδαιμονία) - a state of happiness (literally meaning 'good spirit'). For the Epicureans, the end-state of all human endeavour should be ataraxia (peace and the absence of fear) and, more importantly for our discussion, aponia (the absence of pain). In fact, Epicurus' entire morality hinges on this idea. Only that which causes pain is intrinsically bad and only that which causes peace/happiness/eudaimonia/ataraxia is intrinsically good. For a Stoic, the idea of living a life in a peaceful glade with simple pleasures is the ultimate goal.

It's also not hard to see how these garden-dwelling Greeks directly influenced the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the forefathers of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism took the core idea of Epicureanism and converted it into a mathematical maxim: the moral worth of any action is directly related to the amount of utility it provides. This is a real fancy way of saying: the goodness of deeds are correlated to the amount of happiness (versus un-happiness) it causes in the most amount of people. On paper, it sounds like a fantastic measurement tool: donating money to a charity is an obviously virtuous act, since it contributes to the happiness of numerous people and only actually 'hurts' one person financially. Unfortunately, this law also applies to gang rape - an act that benefits a number of people at the cost of one person's misery.

Tension mounting

Happiness, it seems, is a flawed measurement tool - especially so when dealing with morality. Lashing out Bentham and Mill's utilitarianism,the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, famously wrote in:

"Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that." - Twilight of the Idols

Beyond the initial humour, Nietzsche's aphorism is also thought-provoking: if humanity does not strive after happiness or pleasure, what does it strive after? Many, myself included, would argue that above all, life is a struggle for meaning. Happiness is certainly a core motivation in life, but I would go so far as to argue that happiness is a byproduct of a greater pursuit.

When dealing with humanity's search for meaning in suffering, it's hard to not think of Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus. Suitably, Frankl's most famous work is called "Man's Search for Meaning" - a recounting of his own experience as a holocaust survivor in a Nazi death camp. Frankl's work wrestles with the construction of meaning in the face of abject human suffering, but it is interesting to note how he doesn't stop at merely rationalising suffering, but directly links the it with meaning by saying that "if there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering".

Camus, another figure closely associated with existentialism, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where Frankl's writings are equivocal around the existence of God, Camus's leanings are decidedly atheistic. For Camus, the famous line from The Brothers Karamazov rings true - "If God does not exist, everything is permissible.". Camus maintains that life is inherently meaningless to the point of absurdity (see The Myth of Sisyphus). According to him, it is our duty to posit meaning unto the world. Instead of pitying poor Sisyphus, who is doomed to roll a boulder up a hill each day for eternity, Camus believes that "one must imagine Sisyphus happy" - content in his fate, and liberated for it.

Suffering, it seems so far, has a silver lining. A figure like Nietzsche, in many ways echoing Camus, would go so far as to say that suffering is the only thing that allows us to bestow value and meaning on an otherwise chaotic, apathetic and meaningless world.

The furthest targets

Let us return for a moment to the arrow/target metaphor used earlier. In the preface of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche unpacks (his disdain for) the moral impact of Christianity on modern Europe and the resulting "tension of spirit" in the European people. One can easily extend this metaphor to include the trembling arm and sweaty forehead of an archer, who "with such a tensely strained bow...can now aim at the furthest goals". Our goals, to deliberate, should extend well beyond the actualisation of happiness. As Frankl writes:

Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue. - Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Suffering is certainly uncomfortable, but our mortal coil can also lead to wonderful things - edification, construction, creation. The examples are endless: Van Gough's ear, the starving artist, diehard athletes, martyrs, the construction of the pyramids, the Great Trek, the iterative process of natural selection.

As Frankl beautifully writes "what is to give light must endure burning" - pain is its price, meaning its goal, and happiness its ephemeral by-product. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche (on the other end of the intellectual spectrum) certainly echoes this sentiment with another beautiful aphorism:

"One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star".

Rivers and reality

The very capacity to suffer the non-optional slings and arrows of life is a fundamental part of what truly makes us human. To be able to suffer also introduces its opposite - the ability to feel joy, love and comfort. In that sense, the removal of suffering, as the Stoics would have it, is in many ways incongruous with happiness. Here , Nietzsche chimes in again in:

"What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to 'jubilate up to the heavens' would also have to be prepared for 'depression unto death'." - The Gay Science

Suffering and happiness appear to be two sides of a flipping coin. The garden-dwelling Greeks, as we've discussed, would maintain that a simple life next to tranquil streams of water should be the primary goal of human undertaking. Ironically, another Greek, Heraclitus, had an entirely different view. Reality, according to him, is a constant (pun intended), inter-working flux of forces - nothing is ever complete or static, everything is becoming. The Germanic (wirklichkeit) and Afrikaans (werk-likheid) translation of "reality" underlines this.

Heraclitus famously stated that no person "could ever step in the same river twice" - it's ironic to think that the tranquil streams sought by the Stoics is the very metaphor of a principle that undermines it. A river that's no longer flowing will stagnate. Likewise, life without adversity and flux would leave out the possibility of of hitting the furthest targets.