Wisdom and Suffering

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

 Robert F. Kennedy citing Aeschylus on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination


A few days ago the town manager of Billerica Massachusetts, John Curran, wrote a courageous essay about the online abuse he has received. Curran has a self-described “very rare and significant facial abnormality” known as hemifacial macrosomia, but he added that he had not been mocked for it for a very long time. That is, until the last few years.

Norms seem to have changed, he observed, where cruelty – particularly online, anonymous cruelty – has become more frequent. Curran also wrote that his childhood was not easy, and that he encountered a lot of adversity due to other children mocking him. However, he concluded on a positive note:    

It saddens me that I still have to deal with this from adults at 53 years old, but I would like to say to any young people that are different and happen to read this not to despair.

Your challenge will make you stronger, too, and you are better and wiser than anyone too ignorant to understand how to be civil and kind. Hang in there. It gets better.

Like Curran, I too think that kindness goes a long way. As a species, humans would not have gotten very far without it. And the notion that we are strengthened, not weakened, by our challenges in life is an interesting, though controversial, one.  

Borrowing a term from Nassim Taleb, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to say that people are not just resilient, but “anti-fragile.” This is the idea that we don’t merely weather storms and adversities; rather, we grow from them, in terms of character and learning, as well as physiologically such as building aerobic capacity or muscle from repeated exercise. Haidt cites people like Friedrich Nietzsche (“that which does not kill me makes me stronger”) and Mencius about gaining strength through suffering, noting that:

“it’s not always true; there is PTSD. There are some things that can damage you, but for the most part it’s true… You cannot be a great man or woman unless you have suffered, faced adversity, been banged around, failed and come back, gotten back up fifty, a hundred, five hundred times. That’s the only way to greatness.”

I don’t know how to define “greatness,” but there is something appealing and uplifting about the notion of anti-fragility, particularly if you happen to be in the middle of some adversity. I know a little bit about this; part of the inspiration for this blog was actually an attempt to find meaning after my brother’s death.

However, some nuance is necessary. A lot probably depends on the type of adversity or suffering. There are many types of stressors – physiological, social, interpersonal, psychological, economic, etc. – and they all come with breaking points. And, it’s not just the quality of stressors that counts, but the quantity that we face. After all, encountering new ideas that force us to challenge our dearly held beliefs is one form of adversity (and the one that Haidt is primarily concerned with). But that doesn’t mean we should extrapolate that we are “anti-fragile” in all ways, or that it is inevitable that we will grow from something like incessant bullying, or prolonged starvation, or an incurable disease.

Shortly before he died in 2011, Christopher Hitchens famously wrote that his experiences with cancer forced him to disagree with Nietzsche’s “facile maxim,” adding that:   

“In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” **

Or, as the biological anthropologist (and friend of mine) Ines Varela-Silva put it: 

“I must emphasize, here and now, that no human group “adapts” to poverty, segregation, racism, deprivation, infection, heavy workloads, and shortage of nutrients. They all suffer and many die. The ones who survive to adulthood, do so at the expense of their health and productivity, in some way or other. These are trade-offs that may maximize survival but come at a cost that, sooner or later, will be painfully paid with interest.”

I think a lot about the notion of suffering leading to growth is a desire to assert control over our circumstances. And there is a lot we cannot control, such as where or when (or even if) we’re born. Some of it we can, as pain can stem through bad decisions we make, or guilt from hurting others. Alternatively, the universe may deal us a bad hand in terms of how we look, or being born in poverty, or some disease or deformity. We may find ourselves on the receiving end of bad luck such as an accident, the death of a loved one, or by living through a war created by others. We cannot control being rejected (and there is evidence that rejection literally hurts), or what others think of us.

Still, a common aphorism is that while we cannot control what the world throws at us, we can retain some degree of control how we respond to it. There is certainly no guarantee at all that suffering will lead to wisdom, growth, or “greatness.” If it did, we would see those born into suffering ruling the world, while those born into affluence struggling. That is not what we see. Suffering can often be fatal, or lead to shorter life expectancies, which is the pattern we see in poorer counties in the United States. As Hemingway wrote:

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

But perhaps we can still use the general idea of growth via suffering as a beacon or goal, instead of an inexorable outcome. I like the way that Iain Thomas put it:

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

Perhaps the good news is that in spite of everything, we still have some degree of choice in how we respond to pain. It may not be a guarantee of growth or wisdom, and most of us would rather forgo the suffering altogether. But it will have to suffice. 



** For some reason, Vanity Fair has taken down Hitchens’ original essay from the Internet. Many have cited it, however. The most thorough source I could find, I think, is here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.