Is Suffering Really Necessary?

Author’s note: I wrote this last week, in two cities and over hundreds of miles in the air, before Robin Williams left our sphere of existence. While that event and the subsequent news and social media flurry may color how you read this, and while some of it may even apply, to think I am making any statement about that would be incorrect.

This post showed up in my FB feed the other day stating:

It is interesting to realize I was taught to believe that suffering was healthy. Suffering isn’t healthy, nor necessary. Ever.

Someone commented on that post saying that pain is necessary, but suffering is not. This idea is not restricted to that post or its comments. Over at, Josh Lafayette has an art print expressing this idea. And there’s a picture incorrectly attributing the idea to Buddha (the tl;dr version of the article: “Imagine someone in Asia posting ‘Jesus quotes’ (which are actually AA slogans) under a picture of Santa Claus, and you’ll get a feel for what’s [wrong with this picture]”).

The problem with reading the dictionary when you’re doing your spelling assignments in second grade is that you can’t let people misuse their native language with impunity. So let’s take a look at the root word “suffer“, as defined by the descriptive linguists at Merriam-Webster:

suf·fer verb \ˈsə-fər\
: to experience pain, illness, or injury
: to experience something unpleasant (such as defeat, loss, or damage)
: to become worse because of being badly affected by something

Full Definition of SUFFER

transitive verb
1 a : to submit to or be forced to endure
b : to feel keenly : labor under
2 : undergo, experience
3 : to put up with especially as inevitable or unavoidable
4 : to allow especially by reason of indifference
intransitive verb
1 : to endure death, pain, or distress
2 : to sustain loss or damage
3 : to be subject to disability or handicap

It seems to me, given the above definitions, the comment is splitting hairs; no, splitting a double helix. Consider the very first definition given: to experience pain, illness, or injury. Suffering, then, is experiencing pain. How do you separate the pain from experiencing it? Go ahead, take your pound of flesh, but do not shed a jot of blood. The experiencing of pain is in the nature of the existence of pain.

The Scream

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

Under the full definition, intransitive verb definition 3 is: “to be subject to disability or handicap”. Are you proposing that one who has lost the ability to see or hear, or the use of one or more limbs, does not need to be subject to said loss? Science and Medicine try to help them overcome, but in the meantime, they suffer, i.e. are subject to the condition. Or will you heal them, simply by teaching them that they need not suffer? Am I to understand that someone who has a medical condition that requires physician and state approval before they are granted the privilege of driving need not review that condition yearly, or ever, as that would be being subject to said condition, or suffering that condition?

Consider intransitive verb definition 2: “to sustain loss or damage”. When the damage to my car was evaluated by the insurance company and it was ruled a total loss, I did not need to sustain that loss? There was no need for me to get a rental car, go car shopping, or sell stocks to cover the difference between the insurance company’s offer and the cost of the vehicle I decided to get; there was no need for me to go to the chiropractor to take care of soft tissue damage? Or do you propose we change our language or our perceptions so that where before I might have considered being injured in an auto accident “something unpleasant” (see the second definition), it is no longer something unpleasant? What then would it be, a joy? a thrill? Mind you I didn’t play victim, but I still experienced pain: physical pain, emotional pain, mental pain, as I dealt with the consequences of two large masses, one with a significantly larger momentum, colliding. But that is what suffering is.

I submit that pain without suffering is living in denial about your experiences, and until you let yourself experience the pain, the loss, the disability, until you own it and embrace it as part of your life, you will never gain from the pain. “No pain, no gain” does not imply “Pain yields gain”; pain is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the type of gain that comes from pain. One loss suffered by those who live in denial about their experiencing pain is the opportunity to turn that suffering into art. I am NOT a product of my circumstances. I AM a product of my decisions. - Stephen CoveyThose who play the role of victim in fact deny truth in favor of their pet excuses: it’s never their fault; they’ve got someone else to blame. I am talking here of those who act victimized, not those who truly have been victimized. But even those who have been victimized do not gain from it if they live in denial about what has happened to them, always blaming their current and future failures on their past experiences. Regarding those who act victimized, we feel it a hard thing to have compassion on them as they suffer from their condition of playing victim. Quite possibly, we pity them.

I love the insights that knowing a little bit more than your native language can bring, as in this commentary by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages—Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance—this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling” (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ-czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).

In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity” (French, pitié; Italian pietà, etc.), connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the root “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

So there is suffering, and there is co-suffering, or compassion, or co-feeling, which is a higher form of “suffering” when the emotions one co-feels are pain. An Anglophone might also call it empathizing. I think my favorite of the group is medkänsla. There is one who is perfect in His capacity to co-feel:

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.” – (Alma 7:11-13)

And thus it is that when I entered into the waters of baptism, I made a covenant to “mourn with those that mourn… and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:11), to follow after the example set for me, to strive to have this supreme sentiment in my life.

Perhaps the definition that says to suffer is “to become worse because of being badly affected by something” is what the person who made the post had in mind? I can see this fitting the definition, provided we define what it means to be “worse.” For example, “worse” not meaning poorer financially, or in physical pain, etc., but more like “having poor emotional health because of a grudge harbored against someone that sprang from some incident in the past”. In such a case as this, forgiveness and co-feeling would guard against “becoming worse”, thus no suffering of the poor emotional health sort would have been required (but co-feeling of the emotions experienced by the other at the time of the incident or shortly thereafter may have required co-feeling of pain).

Another condition for which I can see a fit is the suffering that comes as punishment for a broken law. One need not break the law, but when one does, and one is charged, tried, and found guilty, a punishment is given. This kind of suffering is not good from the standpoint of “it didn’t have to happen, the law could have been kept.” But the “necessary” portion conflicts: a law with no penalty attached for not keeping it is a law with no ability to be enforced, and thus an inferior and ineffective law.

Which brings me yet again to scripture. It is not good to suffer in the eternal scheme of things for breaking the laws of God. The penalty has already been paid, if the conditions of payment are accepted and satisfied. In the words of the Savior:

“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent. But if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I….” – (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-17

Yes, here and only here do I agree that suffering eternal punishment for breaking eternal laws is not good, or necessary, ever; at least not for mortals, when the price has already been paid. But if the gift is rejected, suffering is still necessary, as eternal laws must be enforceable.

You may not be a Christian; I understand. The principle still applies: there are eternal laws you can keep or break, but consequences are attached. You need not suffer the eternal consequences if you will change: keep the eternal laws you know to keep, fix the ill effects resulting from breaking eternal laws, always striving to improve.

If these meanings are not what was meant when it was said that suffering is not necessary, please, so that I may comprehend, and perhaps co-feel, enlighten me regarding which definition of suffering you are laboring under to make that statement stop defying logic.

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2 responses to “Is Suffering Really Necessary?

  1. I am new to the site and love the material. At age 65, though, the dark background and especially the italic type are very difficult for me to read. Peace.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I’ll look into what changes I could make (maybe a link that will load a different style?) to make it easier to read. In the meantime, could you try making the font size bigger, and let me know if that works for you? In Chrome and Firefox you can change the size with Ctrl and one of ‘+’, ‘0’, ‘-‘. Ctrl + 0 will reset the font size to the default, Ctrl + – will make the size smaller, and Ctrl + + will make it bigger.

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