Is Suffering a Virtue?

We’ve been having an interesting conversation in the comments, and in other places, on my post the other day: Careless Conclusions About Genre Reading.

A number of people have mentioned that their culture’s “literary” fiction is depressing. And we’ve been tossing around the idea that literary fiction might be defined that way, as being about suffering. In some ways, this makes sense. The original essay’s author referred to it as “serious reading.” There’s a very strong idea that we gain virtue through suffering.

This concept is pervasive through many religions. In Catholicism, only the spirit matters, so the flesh should be mortified. Physical pleasure should be denied and pain sought out, to liberate the spirit from the flesh. Many oriental philosophies believe that only through pain and suffering do we grow. Pleasure puts us into a dreamy state while pain keeps us alert and aware. This kind of thinking is a part of many martial arts systems, as well. Islam is conducive to the creation of the suicide bomber because the body can be easily sacrificed for the delights of afterlife. Judaism has such a corner on suffering it’s become a stereotype.

Many religious rituals are based in creating pain – fasting, sacrifice, hours of prayer, even self-flagellation.

I think these sorts of ideas underlie the debates over “worthwhile” reading. Romance is all about love and finding happiness; therefore it’s not a weighty genre. Suffering and heartache are resolved with a happy ending, not the sacrifice of the physical self to gain enlightenment. In other kinds of genre literature, the character transformations are rarely about angst of the soul. (Although I think we could make good cases for this in many sci fi & fantasy books.)

I’ve bought into this from time to time in my life. Deliberately denied myself pleasurable things and caused myself various kinds of suffering and pain, to achieve various goals.

And you know what? I’m just not convinced.

I’m blessed with a pretty damn wonderful life. I live in a wealthy country, with access to state of the art health care, culture, food and freedom. I don’t have to worry about my village being raided by Mongols or the plagues warm weather will bring or whether the food supply will last through the winter. My concerns are minor and mostly things I choose to care about, as opposed to being life and death problems.

Which part of this am I not supposed to enjoy?

Sometimes I think just relishing all the wonderful things in life is enlightenment right there. Love, sex, music, food, the scent of flowers and the colors of the migrating birds, time spent talking to interesting people, practicing my art – all of it is so full, rich and rewarding.

It might not be a serious attitude, but then, I never claimed to be a saint.

Never really wanted to be one, in fact.

On that note, I hope you all have a fabulous and FUN weekend!


10 Replies to “Is Suffering a Virtue?”

  1. I’ve never believed in the “worthiness” of suffering. I think suffering is unpleasant and tests your mettle, but somehow makes you a superior person? Sorry, don’t buy it. It’s like a story told to those who suffer to make them feel better, or the fairy tales told in the dark ages to the peasants to them in their place. I think if you are suffering, your goal is to get out of the place (physical or mental) you are so you no longer have to suffer. Not that that’s always successful or possible, thus the birth of tragedy.

    1. I totally agree, Gabi. Suffering is part of life, so we must find ways to cope with it and hopefully transcend the hard times. But yes – getting out of it and back into happiness is absolutely the goal!

    2. I seriously dislike the narrative of being made worthy through suffering. In real life this is the narrative cancer patients are forced to live – the language that media and society use to force some semblence of control over someone elses being because it makes ‘us’ uncomfortable.

      In books I do take Mark’s point. However, I also see the suffering of heroines as about being made worthy and also at times as about the reader’s voyuerism.

      1. Wow, Merrian – what a breathtaking way to put it. You’re so right. We create this narrative to justify suffering. I’ve watched loved ones die of chronic diseases and there’s nothing noble or interesting about it. It’s just painful and awful. Love, too, that you bring up the reader’s voyeurism. Rubbernecking at tragic accidents is still just that. I’m not convinced it says anything about the human condition.

  2. I gave a flip answer to this over on Twitter—flip but accurate. Having now read the post to which it pertained, I can respond a bit better.

    Suffering does seem to have a particular appeal to some folks, as long as it’s someone else’s suffering (we have a name for those who just like it), but this is not what “serious reading” is about. The short an nasty of it is, if “serious” literature, ala Henry James, is all about character, then it follows that an author must do what is required to expose character. You do that by putting your characters under stress. The point is not the suffering, the point is the revelation of that which is hidden which is essential to understanding. People reveal themselves under stress in “real” life, how much more so in the controlled pressure of literary manipulation.

    So as in other art forms, it’s not the technique so much as what the technique produces. Suffering is code for pressure and the yield is (supposedly) the finer elements of fictive character.

    1. Twitter is the perfect medium for the flip response – entirely appropriate. Thanks for taking the time to add such an interesting and thoughtful comment, too!

  3. Exactly. Awesome post, Jeffe. And here are a couple quotes I love to back you up. =o)

    “Suffering teaches us only that we suffer. Joy shows us which way to go.” – Mason Cooley

    “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.” – W. Somerset Maugham

    (And yeah, I don’t have the brain power to come up with a witty response on my own, so I turned to quotes. lol)

    1. I *love* those quotes and had never seen them before. Thank you for contributing them – I’m thrilled to have them (more or less) immortalized here.

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