Can suffering make us stronger?

How to Suffer Blissfully: Zen and a Job of Modern Life

Can suffering make us stronger?

Article by Jonathan Cook

If there are any certainties in life, suffering is almost certainly one of them.

No matter who we are or what our situation is, we probably know something about suffering. We’re all born screaming. We fight gravity just to stand up. Even a bug crawling up a single blade of grass is involved in its own private, seemingly tiny struggle.

The question, it seems, isn’t whether we suffer, but how.

Our first and most natural response, it seems, is to try to just avoid it whenever possible. That much is clear, even unavoidable.

But then again, there’s something strange about human nature. We don’t always do that. In fact, quite often, we often seek out suffering. We freely and voluntarily put ourselves in situations where we know we’re going to suffer, but we do it anyway.

For example, some people choose to climb Mount Everest.

They do this voluntarily. Nobody puts a gun to a single toboggan-covered head. And, to be clear: climbing Mount Everest is practically guaranteed to be chock-full of downright anguish. That’s even when everything goes as planned. And, of course, there’s also that pesky part about the likelihood of death.

Yet, one of the main problems Everest is facing these days is that it’s getting too crowded.


Even the people who feel compelled to climb Everest often can’t explain their reasons to their friends, spouses, or even themselves.

Of course, few of us want to put ourselves through anything remotely close to that. Some simply dismiss Everest-climbers as insane. (Of course, this doesn’t really “explain” it as much as “slap a label on it.”)

But there are plenty of other examples that are closer to home. The decision to have children, for example, means signing on for enormous suffering. Sleepless nights, poopy diapers, seemingly relentless tests of patience, energy, and stamina, exploring the frontiers of exhaustion – all of it takes parents to their limits, and beyond.

Yet, scores of us crave it. For some, it can’t happen fast enough. We sometimes can’t even consider not doing it. And when we do it – even amidst all the sleep deprivation and poopy-wiping – they sometimes consider it the greatest, most valuable, even most joyful part of life.

What’s going on here? How are suffering and joy sometimes so intermingled?

There’s something more to all this than it often seems.

There’s a key idea in here. The game isn’t really about avoiding suffering, but finding something to suffer for. The real problem isn’t suffering itself, but meaningless, pointless suffering.

As Everest-climbers and parents demonstrate very well, we’re willing to undergo excruciating pain and agony as long as there’s a good reason for it.

It’s the pointless suffering that we often have a problem with.

A few quotes might help here.

“Life is, after all arguing, a painful struggle. This, however, is providential. For the more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts. Unless you eat your bread in sorrow, you cannot taste of real life. Mencius is right when he says that when Heaven wants to perfect a great man it tries him in every possible way until he comes out triumphantly from all his painful experiences.”
- D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism

Another from the movie Little Miss Sunshine.

“Do you know who Marcel Proust is? French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ‘cause they made him who he was. All the years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.
- Michael Arndt (writer), Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris (directors)

It’s funny: we often talk about wanting to “grow” as individuals. But we often grow by going through experiences that include a certain amount of suffering. Yet we usually try to avoid suffering any chance we get. This means we often talk about wanting to grow while actively working to avoid it at the same time.

But where does this leave us?

It doesn’t make sense to deliberately seek out or create unnecessary suffering, purely for the purpose of growing.

So what, then? Does knowing this help anyone who is actually feeling the heat, right now? The idea that this might deepen their character, or make them wiser, or shape them into who they might become at some future date, might be consoling. Or, it might seem like an abstract, distant idea – a thin blanket on a cold night.

There are other ways to approach this. A classic is the coal and diamond.

Diamonds start as coal. As the story goes, coal undergoes stress, heat, and pressure, and that’s what eventually turns them into diamonds. Maybe we all start out in life as coal. Life drops plenty of stress, heat, and pressure on us. Maybe that’s not the exception, but the point. Maybe life isn’t supposed to be a perennial trip to Disneyland. Maybe the universe wasn’t built for us to be entertained and coddled and flattered throughout the entire course of our entire lives. Maybe part of the point of it is to get a certain amount of stress and heat and pressure.

If we hang in there, and endure it, and we don’t run from it, maybe, at some point, we’ll find that we’ve become a diamond. And maybe, if that happens, we’ll look back and see that all the misery and anguish – maybe in some way we can’t explain – was worth it.

What happens when a grain of sand gets inside an oyster? As the story goes, that grain of sand becomes an irritant. The oyster struggles to get rid of that irritation by pushing that grain of sand out. The process of doing this forms a pearl.

Are we all potential oysters, with life constantly sending us grains of sand?

In the midst of sweat, tears, and pain, these ideas might seem like a faraway, abstract, distant dream.

Even if they help console, they still don’t necessarily go all the way. They still point back to the same question: why?

If we’ve been trained to think that life is supposed to be an endless trip to Disneyland, it’s easy to see how we’ve been set up for disillusionment. But the question still persists. If suffering is unavoidable, but the key is to find something worth suffering for, then what is worth suffering for?

What, in other words, is the point of it all? Why do we have to endure a certain amount of torture to get it, whatever that is?

Seriously: why?

As it turns out, this isn’t the first time that question has been asked.

The story of Job is the classic reference here. The ultra-highly abridged version is this: Job is a good guy. Terrible things happen to him for no apparent reason. He suffers horribly, and all for no apparent cause that he can really understand or that makes sense. But he hangs in there, accepts it, and endures.

If the story ended there, then Sartre, Camus, Kafka and plenty of other existentialists and nihilists would be right. Life’s a bitch and then you die. We’re born, we struggle through the days, one long afternoon after another, and then it’s over. There are a few moments of bliss, some of utter hell, and lots of duller moments in between. As Schopenhauer mentioned, there’s the happiness of the animal who catches his dinner, and the misery of the animal that is the dinner. When we compare those two side by side, they don’t really compare. Misery wins.

This line of thought – even knee-slapping, party-starting moment of it – could go on for a while, at great length and depth. A great deal of modern art and media does exactly this (at least when it’s not trying to convince us that life is Disneyland.)

But of course, Job’s story actually doesn’t end there.

So, how does it end?

Well, one way to describe it is to say that Job had a profound spiritual awakening.

The tale isn’t always interpreted as an example of “experiential spirituality.” But as William James and plenty of others have said, describing spiritual experiences isn’t like describing the price of a hamburger. It’s ineffable. A genuine awakening isn’t like the answer to 22 + 33. Hamburger prices and simple math problems have clear, specific, definite answers that are fairly easy to describe and communicate.

Explaining a spiritual experience, on the other hand, seems to be more like trying to explain what "love" is. Or, it might be like trying to not merely describe, but capture and transmit, with clarity and accuracy, how exactly you feel about the person you love most.

It isn’t easy.

This doesn’t mean we should give up on it. Just the opposite. It means we should try harder.

Most of us can’t articulate – much less “capture and transmit, with clarity and precision” – what it was like to go hiking in the woods, or have a first kiss, or to be thirteen. We can hardly put even the most basic things into words. Even expressing something familiar to all of us - like love – often seems impossible. Hallmark is in business because it’s hard for us to even say “Happy Birthday.” We pay poets and artists to try to articulate it for us.

Doing that with something even more rare and profound – like a whopper of a spiritual experience – seems nearly impossible.

Most people who hear someone even trying to put something like that into words probably assume they’re crazy. Often, they do sound a little crazy. Someone in love probably sounds crazy to someone who never has been. People who see something profound in a piece of art, or a song, or a piece of trash on the sidewalk, often sound crazy to those who don’t see it.

All to say, the end of Job’s story isn’t simple. And it isn’t necessarily easy to understand. And it can’t be boiled down to a bumper-sticker slogan that makes it all make sense, equally, for everybody.

It wasn’t a small ask, after all.

The initial request was to explain why we suffer so much over the course of our lives.


This isn’t asking about whether a burrito comes with white rice or brown. And it’s not a question that can be answered like it.

Most of us these days prefer – that is, demand – intellectual, verbal, back-of-the-book, bumper-sticker slogan-sized answers. We want something logical and rational and inoffensive. We dismiss, ignore, or reject anything that isn’t. We want something highly marketable to a general audience, and G-rated. We want answers that not only flatter us, but make us look cool and smart and awesome and empowered and etc. to everyone at the same time.

But not all answers fit in those cramped little boxes. Some answers turn us inside out. They shove us up in front of the class in our underwear. They humble us. The pop our bubbles. Sometimes, the answers are so profound we need to be carried out on a stretcher.

That seems to be something like how Job’s story ends.

Job, it seems, had a spiritual experience. It was depicted – as maybe the only way to convey it – as a “conversation with God.” (It soon became a pretty one-sided conversation.) One way to see it is as an artistic portrayal of a personal revelation. It uses one of the few mediums capable of reaching those depths: poetry. To say he “witnessed the universe” or “cleansed the doors of perception” might be inadequate words in the effort to describe a profound experience of spiritual awakening. But words on paper are sometimes all we have. They’re better than nothing. When it comes to communicating these experiences to people who haven’t had them, again, it’s no easy task.

Big questions lead to Big Answers. The Answer at the end of Job is colossal. It asks Job how much he really understands about The Big Picture, about what’s really going on in the universe, and it becomes instantly clear that Job is at an utter loss. It mentions laying “the foundation of the earth,” and enclosing the sea with doors, and placing boundaries on it, and saying to the sea, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop.” How much does Job understand about that? It mentions walking “in the recesses of the deep,” where “the gates of death” have “been revealed to you.” And so on.

A response like this isn’t a polite intellectual answer that makes several pieces click nicely together. It’s more like an inner thermonuclear explosion that blows our nicely-clicking-pieces into splinters and dust.

And what is Job’s reaction? He asked the question. How does he react to the answer?

He’s humbled. “I am insignificant,” he says. But it isn’t a meek, strategic humility. It’s not someone pretending not to have an ego, or trying not to stick out, or striking a pose to avoid looking arrogant. It’s a humility born of knowledge. It’s not pretending not to know. It’s more like a revelation of unknowing.

He becomes a seer.

What did he see?

Again, it can be hard for us to say. All he can muster is, “Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

This particular poetry might not strike the same effect on everyone as it does on some. Poetry isn’t physics. These days, that fact often means it gets excluded from having a seat from the adult table when it comes to talking about reality. Some might see the entire story as just an old, outdated folk tale. Fair enough.

But still, even in this, there are some cold hard facts to account for. Who wrote this story, and why? Even the toughest skeptic can admit: somebody wrote it, and for some reason. They easily could have ended the story sooner. Any one of us could write the story with the basic plot of a Sartre or a Woody Allen or a Beckett. Here's the plot: based on the empirical evidence, life is painful, and full of struggle, and then we die, and that seems to be it. End of story. Go have fun.

Any one of us could write a story like that. It’s easy to say “life sucks, and none of it makes sense, and that’s it. Nothing else.”

But the writer of this particular story doesn’t do that. This story goes beyond that, and seems to say, “I’ve seen more. There’s more to it. There’s more going on here than what it seems on the surface. Look deeper.”

The moral of the story isn’t “everything sucks.”

It had a whopper of an ending. Job was satisfied. His questioning was answered.  Or, really, it was "answered," in a way, by dissolving the question. The suffering was excruciating at times. But it didn’t last. Despite all the harrowing torture he endured, Job seemed to wind up better off at the end of the story than he was at the beginning.

Gurdjieff talks about “voluntary suffering” as a way to – in our words – employ the suffering we get as a way to get stronger in life. If “one man’s poison is another man’s medicine,” maybe there’s also a way to convert poison into medicine. This reverses the dynamic, so instead of spoiling the fun of existential Disney, it trains us, hardens us, whips us into shape.

This requires a different worldview. If we assume the world is a cosmic playground where the point of it all is our personal enjoyment, then suffering is meaningless. It’s a mere obstacle, a buzzkill. Suffering becomes something we get angry at and try to eradicate so we can get back to the party.

But if we see the world as a training ground, a school, an existential gym designed to get us ripped on the inside, to buff us up with beefcake souls, then suddenly, can suffering become a welcome teacher. Maybe learning how to suffer well, as strange as that sounds, is a critical job in modern life, even though it's rarely stated openly. Nobody likes being tortured, but with the right approach, the poison of pain can become a kind of medicine. Suffering can be transformed from an unwelcome intruder in life, a Kool-Aid Man crashing through the wall of our comfy inner lounge, to a hardball-but-best-teacher-I-ever-had coach. It becomes a butt-kicking drill-instructor, pounding each of us into something respectable for our own good, pushing us against our own instincts in order to get us ready for whatever further trials lie ahead.

Maybe that’s a different, counterintuitive approach compared to what we usually take. Maybe instead of running from suffering, it means we try turning and facing it, head-on. It means deciding to take our arrows in the chest instead of the back. If we have some karma to pay up on, we step up, pull out our inner wallet or purse, and pay the bill.

If life serves up a piping hot dish of bubbly suffering, and that’s the only thing on the menu, then maybe the most rebellious act is face it squarely – to say “YES,” without shrinking. Maybe that means opening up to whatever painful lesson it has to teach, and swallowing that medicine, however bitter – not just because there’s no other choice, but because it might heal.

Maybe any nice clean lessons or tangible benefits won’t be immediate or apparent. Maybe the lessons will show up in time, but they'll be less than flattering. Maybe, if nothing else, a bit of suffering is a splash of cold water that wakes us up and snaps us out of whatever waking daydreams we were wandering around in just a little while ago. Maybe it shocks us into realizing now that we were, only recently, all worked up over inconsequential nonsense. And now, we aren’t. And that’s a good thing. We’ve moved on. At the very least, we’ve woken up from that dream. Maybe we can keep waking up from others.

From Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The process of coal becoming a diamond doesn’t seem like an entirely pleasant journey for the coal. But maybe, in the end, at some point we haven’t reached yet, it’ll be worth it. Maybe we, too, can one day reach a point of “things too wonderful.”

The thought of that, maybe, is good reason to hang in there, and endure.

If you liked this, check out:

Experiential Spirituality: A User's Guide

Existential Fitness: Boot Camp for the Soul

What is "Spiritual Awakening"? 10 Key Ideas (in Plain English)

10 Existential Riddles Life Asks Each Of Us

7 Practical Spiritual Experiments You Can Run To "See For Yourself"

An Introduction to "Inner Work"

The Perennial Psychology: A Timeless Approach to Understanding Human Nature

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