The Value of Suffering

img_6136wI frequent Reddit (specific, relatively safe subreddits) and saw a recommendation for Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as a book good for helping someone – more specifically, men –  deal with depression. I decided to roll with the suggestion as part of a Christmas gift for my husband, but have been reading it myself, also. The first half of the book is primarily about life in concentration camps; the second half actually touches on some thought-provoking ideas about suffering and how to handle it. One passage in particular got me thinking:

Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of the their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement.

I find this to ring true with me in several situations; working through or overcoming mental illnesses and personal crises of self or relationships has really changed who I am as a person and the path of my life in satisfying ways. However, I realized that this kind of attitude about suffering really permeates our culture particularly in regards to health, body size, and ableism in ways that I think is very damaging to most people. Suffering seems to be fetishized as inspiration to health, which Viktor Frankl also spoke to: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

In practice this looks like people pushing themselves to injury with exercise, calorie counting, obsessing over their will power or perceived lack of it, self shaming for ability level or lack of desired results in health and appearance, and of course shaming others for falling short of whatever a particular person feels pious or righteous about in their “health” habits. Given the existing research and knowledge surrounding weight loss, body size, and health and wellness – which blatantly doesn’t support the most popular of beliefs and efforts of the populace – there seems to be a mass delusion in our culture about the value of these kinds of obsessive, disordered habits. On some level, people are working very hard to find the value in the suffering they put themselves through; being unwilling to even acknowledge or recognize the simple disagreeing science or lack of clear knowledge about how wellness and health work is a matter of protecting themselves against discovering all their suffering has been meaningless rather than enriching to their lives.

At the beginning of my most effective years in therapy, I remember clinging to my anxiety; I was terrified that without worrying and fear, I would be blank and feeble-minded if I didn’t have the anxiety to keep my brain active and cycling, even though it made me absolutely miserable. Letting go of seeking and wishing for body size changes has been less of a clear cut issue for me personally; I still have bad days when I wish that all my troubles with being stigmatized and degraded for my body size could be over by some new good scientific finding or procedure that would change my body size and my life. I still have mental processes that cling to ableist ideas about health where my value as a fat person is based on the concept of still being able to somehow “prove” I am as healthy and able as someone who is smaller-bodied.

It is so ingrained in what we learn and in our existing relationships and communities to value certain kinds of bodies and the suffering associated with achieving them that it is very difficult to let go of the ideas. Unlike anxiety, which is viewed as a mental illness that needs treatment, the constant miserable clawing towards physical ideals of appearance or health is viewed as something righteous and good (side note: Jes Baker’s Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls has some really excellent discussion on this topic).

Looking towards Buddhist ideas is more helpful in dealing with suffering to me personally, and research is starting to support practices inherent in Buddhist philosophies, like mindfulness meditation, as being effective to large groups of people. Rather than fetishizing suffering or insisting on meaningfulness to suffering where there is none, observing, acknowledging, and then letting suffering go is more helpful. It’s deceptively and frustratingly simple and difficult to do all at once; perhaps that’s why so many activists who are vocal about their work in body positivity or intersectional feminism speak about having epiphanies – revealing moments where suddenly, they’re able to let go of continuing to suffer and instead put meaning into their lives through concrete activism.

For many of us, though, it is daily steps of growing and learning about ours and others’ sufferings; many of us have seeds planted in our minds by conversations, readings, or other events in our lives. We are lucky if  we can develop the skills necessary to ensure they continue to grow, flower, and bear fruit over time. Rather than dreading the possibility we may somehow not be worthy of our self-important, self-induced suffering, we can recognize that some types of suffering are misery we can simply opt out of and maintain with efforts at continued cultivation.

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