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The utility of suffering

The utility of suffering

The utility of suffering
February 28
12:00 2021

Often we are overly focused on the problem of suffering. Suffering is almost omnipresent in our lives: we struggle with it, we see others struggle with it, and most of it is due to forces beyond our control. Rarely though do we think of the utility of suffering, how our sufferings are worked through, and how they can paradoxically be good things.

The obvious utility of suffering is that it gives us a greater appreciation of the joy that we are given. Humans are silly creatures and can only appreciate things through comparison. We appreciate food more after we have gone a long while without eating. We appreciate friends more after a long period without seeing them. We appreciate life more after we go to a funeral. Likewise, we appreciate the joys of life after having suffered. Think back to your last big spell of depression or sadness. How good did normal things like a cup of coffee with friends feel once your sadness had passed? Probably better than it normally did. Suffering has the ability to do something that most other things can’t: it can make small things like a nice chat feel like a momentous and life-giving occasion.

A deeper utility of suffering is that it takes us out of ourselves. As noted earlier, much of our suffering is beyond our control. Some things, such as illness, death and natural disasters are completely beyond our control. Other things such as bad interactions with strangers and arguments with friends and family are issues that, if they aren’t your fault, come from the decisions and choices made by others. Even large-scale sufferings, such as economic and environmental crises, are due to the choices of a wide-spread number of people adding on top of each other.

This recognition that we have little control over a large portion of our lives is terrifying at first, but it is also a major source of peace. By recognizing that we do not have control over parts of our lives we can more easily stop trying to control these parts of our lives which we have no control over.

That’s not to say that all of your suffering is beyond your power. If one of your struggles is that you are unorganized, you can fix that. If one of your struggles is a global pandemic, you can’t fix that. By relinquishing control over that which you have no control over, you are liberated from needless worrying over things that are beyond your power and you can begin to reevaluate your situation and actions to see what you do have control over.

That leads directly to the next point. Suffering also allows you to realize that your decisions do have a great impact on others in your life. If other people directly to indirectly contribute to your suffering, that means you probably contribute to the sufferings of others. Suffering is paradoxical: it can be a source of good, but it in itself is not good and should be avoided. One of the goods that comes from suffering is that you are more aware of how your decisions affects others, which allows you to reflect on your actions. We must all ask ourselves “What have I done to wrong someone else? How can I be more considerate of other people? How can I impact someone for the better today?” Suffering allows you to think of others and see what you can do to ease their sufferings.

By taking you out of yourself and helping you see the bigger picture of life, you start to think more about what your purpose is and what your focus in life should be.

Obviously you have some sort of significance if your decisions make such great impacts on the lives of others. Surely you should be purposeful in your actions. This then leads to the question, what is your purpose? Why do you exist? It’s easy to get into a nihilistic slump and say neither of those things matter or there is no reason for either,  but you shouldn’t. We’ve already figured that your life has overarching effects on others. This must give us pause and make us realize that, because our lives and how they are lived have great effects on others, our lives have so much value.

We now find another paradox. It is only by seeing yourself in the context of your relationships with other people that you can really get a glimpse of what you are made for. By taking us out of ourselves, suffering can allow us to do that.

Everyone suffers in life. I am physically disabled and suffered from childhood cancer. That suffering helped shape me and made me who I am today. Learn the lessons your suffering teaches. Whether peace flows like a river or sorrows like sea billows roll, recognize the joys in your life, focus on what is outward, search your soul and learn the utility of suffering.

Featured Illustration by Olivia Varnell

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Jackson Sweet

Jackson Sweet

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