The Bread Will Be Baked, Part II – What Good Is Suffering?

In my last post, I used the views of my young friend Gary (who treats happiness skeptically and suffering reverentially) to talk about happiness. We now turn to suffering.

When religions posit a role for suffering in redemption, that’s at least consistent within the theological context of existential sin or whatever. But those of us disinclined to think humans need “redeeming” from an innate condition of culpability have trouble with the idea that arbitrary suffering is “good.”

That’s why an areligious person like Gary needs to come up with better reasons to argue for it. In religion, suffering is dealt out by god(s) to combat sin. A secular counterpart might be found in “correctional” punishment for criminality (though that has other moral implications I’m not touching right now). But these operate essentially as antidotes, similar to the potentially lethal substances we sometimes use in medicine (the ancients treated infections with snake venom). But they ARE antidotes; we don’t go around randomly injecting ourselves with live vaccines because the pathogens in them are “good” in some intrinsic sense. We use precisely calibrated doses, targeting specific problems. When we don’t it can be deadly. That’s why modern medicine has better success rates than ancient snake poisoning (and also than behavioral reconditioning – but that’s a whole other discussion).

I don’t accept theological arguments for suffering because I reject the premise of sin. I can’t accept an atheological one because it doesn’t make much sense. Don’t get me wrong, I do get the appeal of a Nietzschean reading of suffering as heroic confrontation of a harsh and indifferent universe – hey, I was young once! But even for Nietzsche, suffering is something to challenge and overcome, and even then, it is valuable only when shown to have “meaning.” Ultimately though, I reject the contention that “great suffering” qua suffering (as opposed to what I would call “great effort” toward some happiness-producing end) is meaningful.

While I agree with Gary that hardship is a de facto price of most things of value (the old maxim “nothing worth having is easy” tends to be true), I do think that the character of that “hardship” is distinct from pain as an object of pursuit or appreciation in its own right. We elect to expend a certain amount of resources for things we want; that’s called an “investment” or a “cost.” We make sacrifices for people we love and causes we believe in or we plop down a couple of hundred bucks for a meal at Daniel (the reward varies, but the principle is the same). But sometimes resources are wrested from us or bled away for no reason; that’s called a “loss.” Costs are outweighed by the benefits they buy. Losses are not.

Thinking of happiness – or my preferred term “wellbeing” – as a resource, we can perceive hardship as a cost or a loss by measuring how much wellbeing is given up and what is gained.

Rigorous exercise is genuinely, qualitatively different from physical torture.

Common sense and a rudimentary knowledge of history tell us (and research backs this up) that grinding poverty, illness, violence, social unrest, etc. – true measures of suffering – do not tend to yield productive, creative people or societies. There are exceptions. But there are always exceptions. (Although I never liked the proverbial exception that “proves” a rule – an idiotic and false claim. That’s a total tangent, of course, but look at the tagline above, this blog admits to being “half-baked” which gives me endless leeway).

Speaking of baking: in yesterday’s post I mentioned Toni Morrison’s statement that productivity (the bread being baked) was a worthier pursuit than “happiness.” Since we’re talking today about suffering, I think it’s fair to ask: what happens if you are unhappy, AND no matter how hard you try, you can’t get the ingredients for bread? In other words, what if the bread won’t be baked? What redeems that scenario?

I have alluded to distinctions in the character of happiness (or “wellbeing”) and of “hardship” (or “effort”). But I think that distinctions in degree also matter. In any case, it’s not an either-or proposition.

That’s what we’ll look at tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “The Bread Will Be Baked, Part II – What Good Is Suffering?

  1. Sometimes I think the only people who really believe that suffering is better than happiness (or whatever term you’d like to use) are people who have not really suffered. It’s similar to when people ascribe some sort of nobility to poverty. Or Native Americans. Or whatever. It’s youth and inexperience. I used to think that being miserable was totally awesome and somehow more “real”. Then I went to law school and discovered what true misery actually was. 😉 I quickly changed my mind.

  2. By the way, Anonymous: the reason I want to call it “wellbeing” is that wellbeing by its terms is a more temperate statement than “happiness” and conceptually accommodates the possibility of limits in a way that “happiness” doesn’t necessarily (as I mentioned in Part I). In fact, I agree with the Morrison quote (a favorite of mine) because of the relatively more open-ended requirements of happiness. I think if you substituted “wellbeing” that quote would ring less true. I also think wellbeing is a more precise counter to suffering.Joel: SOOO true about New York! [not that I was eating at Daniel on a regular basis]

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