The Value of Suffering and the Importance of Suffering Thresholds

In an earlier essay I raised some questions about the value of suffering, especially the default assumption that suffering is to be avoided and brought to a quick end when it does occur. In Nietzsche’s writing we find claims that suffering has instrumental value and intrinsic value, or at least it will to the higher types of human beings who have the appropriate will. Here I want to consider the claim that suffering has instrumental value and what that means for our attitudes towards our and other’s suffering.

Nietzsche’s remarks about suffering might lead one to think that an endorsement of his views would imply that we shouldn’t try to end suffering ever. For example, in the Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress,” the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed–all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly. (Part of Section 338. Kaufmann translation.)

However, I do not think that Nietzsche here or elsewhere claims that all instances of suffering have instrumental value—but regardless, we needn’t think that they do.

To get clearer on this issue, let’s examine various kinds of suffering. There is the suffering from a lack of life’s necessities, namely, food, clothing, and shelter. There is the suffering that comes from great physical pain, e.g., a kidney stone or migraine. There is the suffering that comes from psychological ailments such as depression, anxiety, etc. There is the suffering that comes from loss, e.g., the loss of a loved one or a marriage. There is the suffering that comes from engaging in a challenge, either chosen or forced upon one, e.g., the challenge of writing a book, designing a house, or finding oneself in charge during a crisis. This is certainly not an exhaustive catalogue. But it will suffice for our purposes to keep these examples in mind.

One way in which suffering could be instrumentally valuable would be when enduring it allows one certain insights and the knowledge of one’s own strengths. Suffering can be educational in many ways. It can, for example, pull one away from much of the nonsense that makes up daily life, focusing one’s attention on things of truer value. It can also give one strength, as one uncovers the hidden depths of fortitude within oneself, as when one journeys through the layers of grief following a loved one’s death, coming out on the other side wiser and surprisingly still in some sense whole. But clearly not all cases of suffering will be valuable in this way, nor in the same way to all.

Let’s assume with Nietzsche that there is a certain necessity to suffering: it is only through suffering that certain valuable things can be known and achieved. Given this, the claim I am making is that the necessity of suffering does not imply that all suffering is necessary. What makes the difference? I want to suggest that there is a suffering threshold past which the instrumental value of suffering is outweighed, or simply negated, by some other negative value, e.g., the crippling of the body or mind.

Presumably the nature of a person, her constitution, character, goals, beliefs, and opportunities, support network, friends, etc., will influence the threshold point. Thus, a starving, destitute third world child may have a low suffering threshold in comparison to a first world adult. The suffering she endures fails to be of value. It cannot be utilized for personal growth.

From this, we might propose that the question of helping others who are suffering becomes a matter of identifying their suffering threshold and not letting them go past it. This is, of course, a difficult and risky matter, and such difficulties rightly prompt us to err on the side of caution. Because of the degree of uncertainty, we act “too” early. But what else are we to do? Once again, epistemological issues cloud everything.

As I am wont to suggest, let us leave those worries aside for now. With the idea of a suffering threshold in hand, we can imagine a kind of imperative to increase one’s threshold as far as possible. That is, if we agree that suffering has instrumental value when it doesn’t cross the threshold, and if its value is unique—only through suffering are certain valuable things achievable—then if what stands in the way of utilizing suffering is a low suffering threshold, then one should seek to increase one’s threshold. But how?

Here, perhaps, are some ways:

1) Increase one’s physical constitution.
2) Practice not objecting to small displeasures, e.g., inconvenient but not terrible headaches (maybe even the terrible ones should be experienced without reaching for medication).
3) Seek out certain kinds of challenges that are risky but not foolishly so.
4) Understand better the connection between pain and suffering, e.g., from a Buddhist perspective—but not in relation to the doctrine of no-self; rather, in relation to the connection between attachment, craving, and suffering.
5) Fathom one’s limits so that one does not panic too soon, e.g., when one falsely believes that a given task is beyond oneself.

These all make use of pain/suffering. And they also point to an interesting distinction. There appears to be physical and mental aspects of the threshold, though they are interdependent to be sure. The health of the body influences the strength of the mind, what one thinks one can handle. The mind’s strength influences what one believes the body can handle and even how the body feels. Think of the headaches and nausea that can come from anxiety.

In summary, if suffering does have instrumental value, it needn’t always. One thing that may determine when it does and when not is a person’s suffering threshold. If that is right, and if suffering really has unique value, then that gives us reason to consider an imperative: increase your suffering threshold. Such an imperative is conditional and itself dependent on a person’s threshold. Perhaps a person is in circumstances in which her threshold is low and where those circumstances make it impractical for it to be raised any higher without crossing the threshold, since the ways to raise it all involve pain and suffering.

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