Let us recall the dominant paradigm– avoid suffering. After all, who wants to spend weeks in bed sick, in pain and discomfort? Who wants to be Down and Out in Paris and London? Who wants to have their heart broken?
But falling in love feels so good. It contains the facts of raw experience: capriciousness, discontinuity, and lack of control. This is opposed to the normalcy and boredom that come from staying in your comfort zone. Of course loving is also when you are the most vulnerable. Which is why it hurts so bad if you get your heart broken. But after you’ve gone through it, you emerge stronger. Don’t believe me?
Think of your best story. Surely it involved something unexpected, some kind of adventure. Possibly even your greatest suffering? You survived and want to tell people about it, both as a form of self-healing, and as caution to the youthful and inexperienced. Such conflicts are the subjects of most novels. The book you have yet to write probably involves some lesson or moral you learned through a clash of expectations and the unexpected.
If you still aren’t on my side, let me point out that the pain of suffering dulls over time. Each time you tell the story, it becomes more mythical. And in the hindsight of memory, all suffering is laughable.
Either you go through life not trusting anyone and never experiencing a thing, or you trust and get fucked and pass your stories on. Through suffering you will learn that life is very long– instead of casting eyes back on twenty effortless, changeless years at your office job, you will break life into eras and chapters. That was when I was with that girlfriend. Or that was when I worked there. When you think of life this way, it becomes easy to imagine yourself as someone who has overcome a variety of experience. Highs of pleasure and lows of pain.
When I told my grandma about this essay she scoffed. “You’re 24, what do you know about suffering? I’ve lost a child. That’s a ten on the scale. The most you’ve suffered is a three.”
“Ah, but Granny,” I replied, “My experience of missing my sweetly departed love is as intense to me as your lost child is to you. To me, it’s a ten.” Granny’s right though. My suffering is far removed from the physical agony of a broken bone, equidistant from the bland tedium of a rainy Sunday. These sufferings are based on different qualities. We are all capable of happiness and suffering– both Granny and I are capable of suffering a ten out of ten, although her suffering may be quantitatively deeper and broader, due to our differing subjective experience.
Our genes and our experience affect the quantity of our suffering. If my parents are depressive, chances are I will grow up prone to depression. Some people are capable of deeper suffering than others based on their genetic code (I’m probably more sensitive than most).
Take the Indian Untouchable, for example, who may be as predisposed to goodness and happiness as the average American stockbroker. Qualitatively, my suffering may be just as deep as the Untouchable’s, but quantitatively his may be deeper, or vice versa. Despite circumstantial differences between me and the Untouchable, we are both capable of having days of ten or days of one on the happiness scale.
We are quick to pity the Untouchable. But I surmise the American used to competition and materialism may find much in common with the Untouchable in terms of qualitative suffering. The latter, who has less chance at gain and profit, who is bound by duty to stay a street sweeper, is probably more easily satisfied than the American who lives in constant search for more. It is important to consider your own suffering both subjectively (quantitatively) and objectively (qualitatively).
Despite quality or quantity, we value suffering because it is innate to the human condition. Next time you see an opportunity for raw experience, you have the chance to embrace suffering, and turn that moment into a story.