Suffering Doesn’t Create Meaning, You Do

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Normally I’m a huge fan of Offbeat Bride and its offshoots, like Offbeat Home. Generally they’re pretty quality at providing perspectives from people of all walks of life and promoting quality, healthy ideas like good boundaries and self care. Alas, they published something today that fell into one of the awful thinking patterns that irritates me more than almost anything else: suffering is good because it makes things MEAN something.

People like to say things like “To genuinely love or be passionate for something is to suffer.” or “Suffering gives you depth and compassion.” without providing any evidence of these statements, as if just saying it makes it true. These kinds of blanket statements give us reasons not to try to reduce suffering, and make it noble or good to push yourself past reasonable limits (this article was in the context of long distance running, which is great for some people but especially when it comes to exercise I’d really like to diminish the amount we praise suffering because that shit can go south real fast).

Let me be clear: there are people who go through painful experiences, who suffer, and who do not gain compassion from it. I promise. I’ve met them. I’ve lived through certain painful experiences that honestly just made me worse because I have come out hurting and sensitive.┬áSome people live through trauma and they end up hurt and angry, going on to hurt others. Sometimes we go through something hard and simply survive. We don’t always know how to process or create meaning out of difficult experiences, even if we want to or try to, because sometimes there is no meaning there. A bad thing just happened and that’s it.

On the other hand, sometimes we find meaning through positive experiences: some of the biggest growing moments of my life have come when I’ve been faced with compassion and kindness and felt comfortable, safe, and happy. I’ve found meaning by sitting in a room with a therapist and talking about what emotions are and what they mean. I’ve found meaning by sharing simply joys with my husband. Suffering is not REQUIRED to create meaning, nor does it necessarily create meaning.

What makes the difference is not the experience itself, but rather an individual’s response to it, which is affected by their history, the environment that they’re in now, the support they have to process the experience, and the depth of the suffering. There’s a huge difference between choosing to push your body to run a long distance and being emotionally abused for years at a time. These are both examples of suffering, but they come in completely different contexts. It concerns me deeply that people feel comfortable making blanket statements about suffering without differentiating suffering that you have decided to undergo from suffering that’s inflicted on you.

Why am I so frustrated about this? Well trite sayings about how suffering will give meaning to your life are often deployed when someone talks about their suffering and asks for help. It’s a way to ignore the responsibility we have to each other to reduce suffering. It’s a way to invalidate others when they say something sucks. This kind of logic allows us to ignore unhealthy behaviors, because suffering is good (see: eating disorders, excess exercise, etc). It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow people to feel angry or hurt when others cause them suffering, instead promoting the idea that you should just grow from it, see the bright side. It’s a mentality that responds to a problem like “I’m miserable in the work that I’m doing” with “suffering gives you meaning”.

I have experienced some suffering that was under my control, the choice to push my body further or the choice to really challenge my mind, and in those cases it can be beneficial. I had support, I had the ability to end it if it became unhealthy. I have also experienced suffering that was overwhelming and outside of my control and what I learned is that I never want to experience that again and I will do everything in my power to reduce suffering.

We as humans get to choose what we do in response to suffering. Those choices are what help us to grow and create meaning. Sometimes we have the ability to choose meaning and sometimes we have to choose survival instead. But can we please, please stop glorifying suffering?