The Utility of Suffering

It is difficulties that show what men are. So when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a trainer, has matched you with a tough young opponent. What for? So that you may become an Olympic victor; but that cannot be done without sweat.

Epictetus, Discourses

What is the value of suffering?

Two years ago, I was facing frequent anaphylaxis, insomnia, and immunological dysfunction. At that time, due to a recent adverse reaction to the pneumococcal vaccine and a past allergic reaction to the lipid nanoparticles found in the new COVID vaccines, I was advised that my only recourse during the pandemic was to stay home. I was surrounded by symptoms, but had no answers. I was struggling, I was suffering, and I was afraid.

On one particularly rough day, I opened musician and thinker Nick Cave’s newsletter, The Red Hand Files, and saw a reader question about the utility of suffering. Peter asks, “What is the value of suffering to us as individuals, and to us as a species as we go through our life carrying suffering around, like some mind-numbing, soul crushing weight?”

In his response, Cave explains that we have two choices. We can either transform our suffering into something else, or we hold on to it, and eventually pass it on. I reread that first sentence several times. We can either transmute suffering into something of value, or we can inflict our pain onto someone else.

I couldn’t help but wonder what I was making of my own suffering. Was I sanding down the sharp pain into something a bit less jagged? Or was I inadvertently using my own pain as a weapon against others? I still think about this question often.

If my suffering is a steak knife, am I using it to slice my life into more manageable pieces or have I stabbed the man who overcooked the cow?

Acknowledging that suffering is universal

There’s a parable of a woman who, devastated by the death of her son, decided to take his body to Buddha. She hoped he’d be able to ease her grief and revive her child. Buddha said he’d fulfill her wish on one condition. She was told to collect mustard seeds from all the families in her village who’d never known any suffering.

The woman went from house to house but not one person gave her a mustard seed, as they’d all experienced suffering. It was then that she understood that she had no choice but to accept reality and the pain this involved.

Cave goes on to explain that “In order to transform our pain, we must acknowledge that all people suffer. By understanding that suffering is the universal unifying force, we can see people more compassionately, and this goes some way toward helping us forgive the world and ourselves. By acting compassionately, we reduce the world’s net suffering, and defiantly rehabilitate the world. It is an alchemical act that transforms pain into beauty.”

I can only speak to my own experience, but it can be all too easy to focus on our individual suffering and forget that others are silently waging their own battles. Compassion does not always come easily, especially when one is consumed by the details their own personal perils.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.

Nelson Mandela

Compounding the suffering

At times, we forgo empathy and choose not to transform our suffering into something meaningful. Instead, we wallow in self-pity and mope at our plight. We may even transmit our pain to others, in the form of abuse, torture, hatred, misanthropy, cynicism, blaming, and victimhood.

However, doing so compounds the suffering in the world. Cave observes that “Most sin is simply one person’s suffering passed on to another.” Let that sink in.

When we harm another, it’s often emerging from our own unresolved pain. Jealousy, raised voices, raised fists, and hushed whispers in the schoolyard come from wherever it is that we most hurt. Suffering, kept secret, festers in the darkness.

What if, instead of hitting back, we could learn to recognize and acknowledge another’s suffering? What would happen if the societal chain letter of pain infliction ended with you.?

The purpose of suffering is the opportunity it affords us become better human beings.

The utility of suffering

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The beauty that Kubler-Ross describes goes beyond what’s seen at face-value. In fact, in a similar quote, Kahil Gibran suggests that “the most massive characters are seared with scars.” What they are both referring to is the strength of character that comes from enduring hardship with an open heart–the willingness to feel, to process, and to release the pain, rather than pass the burden on to someone else.

For many of us, the lessons we’re meant to learn seem to be recurring, as if life is allowing us to retake the exam until we land on the right answer. Staying calm and compassionate in a situation that used to stress you out is a sign of growth. When we learn to control our emotions and transform them into something of value–whether art, shared experience, or empathy–we can separate ourselves from the pack. We can become the better human beings that this world so desperately needs.

The pathway to authenticity

Suffering is hard and is painful. No one would argue otherwise. However, the pain is not for nil.

The pathway to authenticity entails risks, setbacks and suffering, especially when it is contrary to social norms. By facing our suffering head-on, we can discover our true capabilities. We exhume data that helps us view our lot in life through a new lens. We develop the wherewithal and resilience to face future adversity with lifted chins.

Researcher Dr. Paul Wong recently proposed a new field of research, which he calls Existential Positive Psychology. This area of study is built on the realistic presumption that all people face suffering, that suffering can be accepted, and that a willingness to face and transcend suffering is part of the foundation of a deep and stable form of well-being. From this perspective, the good life requires facing and balancing both the positive aspects of life and the inevitable suffering.

Two years ago, I was struggling, I was suffering, and I was afraid. While much has changed in that time, the most significant shifts were not external, but instead to my mindset. Once I accepted that sickness, loneliness, and fear of missing out weren’t going to kill me, I could begin striving for happiness within the constraints of my reality. From there, my life improved.

The suffering then softened and gave way to small instances of joy.

What is the value of suffering?

Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.


Whether you’re facing the symptoms of aging, a recent divorce, a terrifying diagnosis, a child in prison, chronic illness, financial insecurity, a loveless marriage, a midlife crisis, homelessness, a terrible boss, a soul-sucking career, or any of the other thousands of things that break our heart open, don’t give up.

My hope is that you can, in due time, learn to view suffering as a means toward authenticity, compassion, and unity.

May we all learn to bear life’s greatest calamities with cheerfulness.

You can find more from me on my personal blog:

31 thoughts on “The Utility of Suffering

  1. “Most sin is simply one person’s suffering passed on to another.” . . . a tragic, profound synopsis of much of society today.
    Would that we all could pass along love to ease this world’s suffering.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Your personal suffering offers a new way of seeing. Pain propels us toward the willingness to pursue the depths of our inner being and becomes the catalyst for personal growth. Without suffering and the willingness to heal, evolution would be at a complete standstill. Eventually, I’ve heard, we learn through joy rather than suffering. Now there’s something to look forward to!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You comment is so profound and moving, Julia. Thank you! I do agree that pain can serve as a catalyst for personal growth, if we just allow it. Learning through joy is certainly something to look forward to! the catalyst for personal growth

      Liked by 2 people

  3. You had me with the Kubler-Ross quote…one of my favorites…both the quote and the human. Yes. Yes. The people who matter most in my life are the folks who’ve done the soul work about their own pain…found higher ground and do their best to help others heal…and rise. Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement, Erin. 💕

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That quote really is a good one. I love your description, Vicki, of folks who work on themselves and then help others rise. What lovely imagery, and something worth striving for. 💕

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s funny but we are dealing with my father in law who is in the hospital. He is I’ll, but he made a comment to me last week that I was very hurt and angry at. My dad has been I’ll for the past six years, the past two being really bad. My fil said to me that my father hasn’t suffered like he (father in law) has. To be fair my dad dealt with stage 4 lung cancer and has had pneumonia three times since then. But regardless…suffering isn’t a competition….can’t we just say that both have suffered?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m sorry you’re going through that, LA. I’m with you–we all have our burdens and, though different, they’re are still hard–and it doesn’t do any good to discount someone else’s experience. Just imagine if, instead, there was empathy… “I understand how your father must feel.” The world needs more of that.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I suppose, in my idea of a perfect world since we all suffer to some degree at various times that we can empathize with others, especially when they are in the midst of a really difficult time. To have your fil say what he did would be overwhelming and I am so sorry LA.

      Erin, I thought much the same thing when you wrote about your friend in the other post. Yet I know you had not discovered the cause of all you were dealing with, which also means she had no knowledge I assume? But still, to make the choices that you seem to convey in that post…it hurt me to read them and try to understand her reasons. I have been on the receiving end of comments and hurt much like you and LA describe- the seemingly uncalled for need to bring pain to another person and I don’t understand it. While I agree that there are valuable lessons to be learned from hard, harsh, unkind mental and physical suffering, and perhaps we have very little control over the physical forms, why people often feel the need to compete, as LA noted, is baffling.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Exactly. Why sit there and say, well it’s easy for your father cause he doesn’t have my disease…really? That’s the take away?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Folks with that sort of attitude are clearly dealing (well not dealing at all) with way more stuff underneath their cranky and mean facade to be so hurtful and insensitive to others. What could have ever happened in their life to cause that?

        Liked by 4 people

      3. I think it’s a little bit of narcissism…it’s almost textbook…blame others, compare self to others, bring everything back to yourself, etc…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Suffering is most certainly a part of every human’s experience. It’s what we do with the suffering that defines who we are and if we will experience the joy beyond. Of course I say this from my own experience.
    I’ll share a link here, but please feel free to remove it if you wish. Just wanting to share similar thoughts on suffering and a meaningful anecdote from Viktor Frankl.

    You wrote a beautiful and honest post. Loved it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’ve articulated my thoughts so perfectly, Alegria: “It’s what we do with the suffering that defines who we are and if we will experience the joy beyond.” Beautiful! That you also for sharing the Viktor Frankl–he embodies grace, wisdom, and acceptance under unthinkable circumstances, and there is so much we can learn from him. 💕

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Viktor Frankl’s story is a powerful one. If you’re interested in the study of suffering, Admiral James Stockdale also shares a powerful story. Several books depict his story. I’ll share another video here if that’s okay.

        Thank you for your lovely message. 💕🌸

        Liked by 2 people

  6. “If my suffering is a steak knife, am I using it to slice my life into more manageable pieces or have I stabbed the man who overcooked the cow?” Wow – what a great metaphor, Erin. And also a deep and meaningful post. You’ve done a great job of bringing together your amazing attitude and story with wonderful quotes and deep insight. You’ve done the work to transform your suffering and it’s so inspiring!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Wynne!! A big thank you to you, Vicki, and this community for providing me a space to explore my story and share whatever bits of wisdom I discover. I’m so grateful!! 💕

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I liked the key points of your post, Erin. The story of the bereaved mother and Buddha is an insightful one – unfortunately, suffering is a part of everyone’s reality. It’s learning to accept it and turn it into a growth opportunity that separates those that are able to cope and learn from it from those who internalize and live with it and pass it onto others.

    It’s not a pragmatic reality that is easy to accept but a necessary one.

    Coincidentally, I’m preparing steak tonight for tomorrow’s dinner. I’ll be thinking of this post as I marinate the suffering. 😆

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s really a poignant story isn’t it? How often do approach others to ask about their suffering? It’s often quite taboo, so we just never know. You make sure a great point about the difference between those that learn and grow and those that view themselves as victims (and victimize others). Now, the real question is how do we teach people to transform their hurt into meaning? Likely unanswerable, and something people just need to figure out on their own.

      Ooh, I hope you and your family enjoy the steak, Ab! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The question to the teaching is an interesting one and I do think part of that has to come to what gets taught in school and at home about personal life management.


  8. Wow Erin such an insightful, profound and powerful post. So much to think about here. You show so much wisdom in your attitude, something we can aspire to. Perhaps we can be role models for others, changing the world one person at a time. Regrettably I think there are so many hurting and just lash out at others. I’m also interested in the new field of research … hopefully it won’t be too scientific as I’d like to explore a bit. Thank you for sharing, and for the effort and attention that this post undoubtedly required. 🩷

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brenda! I love the idea that those of us who have figured out the utility of suffering can lead by example. I agree that are a lot of wounded folks out there–likely more people feeling broken than whole and happy. I just discovered existential positive psychology in the last few weeks, so it’s also very new to me, but it makes so much sense. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Like this – “Staying calm and compassionate in a situation that used to stress you out is a sign of growth. When we learn to control our emotions and transform them into something of value–whether art, shared experience, or empathy–we can separate ourselves from the pack. We can become the better human beings that this world so desperately needs.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Every once in awhile, I save a post that hits me to the core, knowing I will want to come back to it from time to time. This post is one of them! I loved the Buddha story: a dear friend once told me: “if everyone were at a party and could leave their troubles in a bowl in the centre of the table and leave the party with someone else’s troubles, they would still end up leaving with their own.” I think of that often: we never know the burdens others are carrying around, unnoticed.

    I loved when you wrote “For many of us, the lessons we’re meant to learn seem to be recurring, as if life is allowing us to retake the exam until we land on the right answer.” That is certainly a theme I’ve noticed in my own life even as I work really, really hard to get through the challenges so I DON’T have to relive them (or a version of them) yet again.

    Thank you so much for this. I also greatly benefited from all the insightful comments. 🙏🙏🙏


  11. You have put the argument well: suffering can and often does have utility if we view it as the Stoic philosophers did and Buddhists do. I would add that some do not have the constitution to overcome it. This is sometimes a personal failure and at other times the crushing piling up of catastrophe after catastrophe.

    Among Holocaust survivors, one theme mentioned by many of them was that those who saw the catastrophe realistically, for the unspeakable awfulness that it was, often perished early. Those who did survive, in addition to random good luck, managed to distance themselves from “thinking too much.”

    The ancient Greek play Hecuba by Euripides is an example of a woman, the former Queen of Troy, who is morally destroyed by the multiple events suffered after she was captured and interned by the victorious Greek forces.

    Suffering is a complex matter, as your essay reveals. It is a seed capable of spurring growth or cancer — also growing in us — and capable of complete destruction. Your bravery in facing it and learning from it is worthy of praise.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s