Marcel Proust (51) on his deathbed, by Man Ray (1922)

Being worthy of our sufferings

Facing difficulties and struggling successfully

Although Marcel Proust is considered by English critics and writers to be one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, he was a man who knew deep suffering. For example:

  • He suffered so badly from asthma that from the age of 9 he would often have one-hour long attacks, up to ten times a day
  • He was forced to sleep during the day (otherwise his asthma attacks would be worse) and he suffered from extreme insomnia
  • He was unable to eat more than a single meal a day (which had to be taken 8 hours before his bedtime)

It’s hard to imagine how someone could endure so much suffering and yet still achieve so much. But if Proust was writing this very paragraph, he would undoubtedly say that it’s because — not despite — these sufferings that he was able to achieve such heights.

As Alain de Botton writes in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, Proust’s belief is that people become properly inquisitive only when distressed:

We suffer, therefore we think. And we do so because thinking helps us to put pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot it’s dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence.

For example, Proust writes about the unexpected benefits of insomnia: A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness.

Over the last few weeks, I hope I’ve been gaining a new appreciation for Proust’s perspective, as my recovery from a cycling accident has been going slower than expected, has involved quite a bit of insomnia, and has included a few weeks of dengue fever. In comparison to Proust’s suffering — and billions of others throughout the world — these are just temporary speed bumps. And yet, it feels like a lost opportunity to not try to understand what this minor suffering might be trying to teach me.

For, in the words of Nietzsche:

All lives are difficult; what makes some of them fulfilled as well is the manner in which pains have been met… The art of living lies in finding uses for our adversaries.

Or, in the similar words of Proust, perhaps the greatest claim one can make for suffering is that it opens up the possibilities for intelligent and imaginative inquiry; possibilities which may quite easily be (and most often are) overlooked or refused.

Although I’m not yet sure about all of which this struggling might teach me, I believe one of the most important lessons is learning to prepare for and live with future struggles and frustrations, if for no reason other than being more prepared to accept and live with them when they inevitably come. In the words of Seneca, the ancient stoic philosopher:

we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and understand, and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom.

This seems like an overwhelming task, but perhaps the first step is the one I just mentioned: recognizing that struggles are one-hundred-percent unavoidable and inevitable. Because only after this recognition can we then prepare adequately.

While this may seem morbid and fear-binding — or at least potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy — Seneca meant exactly the opposite. That only by accepting the possibility of any calamity of pain are we able to overcome that pain. He also believed that our anxiety is often much worse than the struggle itself. And so he writes: “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.”

As he wrote to a friend who faced a career-threatening lawsuit: if you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you then being sent into exile or led to prison? Can you not say:

  • ‘I may become a poor man’; I shall then be one among many.
  • ‘I may be exiled’; I shall then regard myself as though I had been born in the place to which I’ll be sent.
  • ‘They may put me in chains.’ What then? Am I free from bonds now?

Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl writes about something similar: that the sort of person we become is not just a result of our external circumstances, but of our “inner decision.”

He remembers the most unimaginable suffering in the concentration camps, and yet shares about men and women who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread: “Proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

As he goes on to write:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life…
Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings.