Does Suffering Make Life Worthwhile?
In his novel, The City and The Stars, Arthur C. Clarke details a place where death has been transcended. The city of Diaspar is run by a Central Computer which creates the people that live there and stores their minds in its memory at the end of their lives.
Diaspar is in the grip of insular conservatism. The city is completely enclosed and no one has entered or left the city for as long as anyone can remember. There are no young children running around, there are only a handful of people living in Diaspar at any time one time. The rest are stored in the Central Computer’s memory bank.
Everything that makes up our everyday lives today has been replaced in Diaspar by safety and indolence. Suffering has been eradicated, but at what cost?
To be human is to suffer. While there are few certainties in life, one certainty is that we will all suffer at some point in our lives. Whether it is the result of an illness, the bereavement of a loved one, or a traumatic event, we will all endure our fair share of suffering.
Another certainty is that once that suffering has been endured, there will come a point when we suffer no more. Death is another certainty in life. Whether we like it or not, death waits for nobody. It is our ultimate fate and it cannot be denied.
When life is described as such, it sounds like a hard slog until we can take no more and pass away. But, this is to miss the point of life itself. We were placed on this planet through no choice of our own. We were born into an imperfect world, a world where suffering is widespread. Would we want to live in a world like Diaspar, where safety reins and there is no sense of adventure or danger?
I doubt we would.
The Tragic Triad
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Following the Anschluss between Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938, Frankl was forbidden from treating Aryan patients due to his Jewish identity.
In September 1942, Frankl, his wife and parents were transported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in the German occupied land of Bohemia and Moravia. It was in this Ghetto that his father would die from a pulmonary edema and pneumonia.
Two years later in October 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was later moved to Kaufering, a camp affiliated with Dachau, where he spent five months working as a slave labourer. He was moved to Türkheim in March 1945, where he worked as a Physician before the camp was liberated by American soldiers in April 1945.
Once the war was finished, Frankl found out that all but one of his close relatives had survived the war. Frankl’s mother Elsa and brother Walter were murdered at Auschwitz. His wife was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she was murdered. The only surviving member of his family was his sister, Stella, who had emigrated to Australia from Austria.
By all accounts Frankl had suffered more than most during the war. Those close to him had perished, with the exception of his sister. However, Frankl would not wallow in his ill-found circumstances. He picked himself up and made the most of his life that he could.
He continued his physiological practice and wrote a famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, detailing his time in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It’s in this book that Frank details his Tragic Triad, three universal facts about human existence.
“There is no human being who may say that he has not failed, that he does not suffer, and that he will not die.”
While this may sound dispiriting, Frankl believed this was where meaning comes from. Without death, life has no purpose, it just is. Without failure, we have no reason to learn, without suffering, there is no pleasure or purpose in life.
Suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition. We can shy away from it, but we must face up to it. By facing up to our struggles, our failures, our suffering, we get meaning from life. We find out who we are in the times of our greatest struggles. It is a test we must all face.
When we attempt to push our pain, whether physical or emotional, we are causing ourselves to suffer even more. To open ourselves up to suffering, to see how we can make use of it, instead of denying it, is to set in motion the wheels of healing and growth.
Death gives our lives an urgency they require. Without it, or suffering, would we strive to achieve anything? Would we have any purpose at all? Or would we simply just be?
How Much Are You Willing To Suffer?
Whenever I go to the gym, I have to suffer through an hour of physical turmoil. I put my body though a strenuous workout, my muscles are screaming at me for respite, yet I push on until the hour is up.
Why do I do this? Wouldn’t it be easier to sit at home and not put yourself through that three times a week? The answer is, yes it would, but that is not the point. While the workouts may be tough, once they are finished, I am rewarded with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
I have pushed my body to the limit. I have taken it places it did not want to go and despite all the agony and sweat, I am still standing and feeling all the better for it. For me, this has a lot of meaning. It shows that I can push myself to not only tolerate adversity, but thrive under it.
We all have situations like these in our lives, where we do not want to face up to something that feels uncomfortable. Yet, we have to do it. We find ourselves in these moments. It is where our character shines through and we reveal our true selves.
Would there be much point to life if we did not have suffering? While we would be spared the turmoil of sickness, disaster and death, would it be worth it?
While the Tragic Triad are uncomfortable parts of life, they provide us with the opportunity for growth, to become better people. If they were not present, we would be in permanent stasis, as the few people who inhabited Diaspar were.
Frankl understood this. While what he suffered at the hands of the Nazis was horrendous, he did not wallow in self-pity. He used these terrible experiences to push on and search for a greater meaning to life.
During our life we will all accumulate baggage of one form or another. Whether it is emotional or physical, it will remain with us. The question is do we learn from it, or do we push it away into the recesses of our mind?
Unlike the inhabitants of Diaspar, suffering will forever be a part of our lives. We cannot cheat it, we cannot overcome it, we must accept it. The sooner we accept this is how it is, the sooner we can accept that pain and anguish or woven into the fabric of life, the sooner we can step more fully into life.