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How to Suffer Successfully

Grief - The Five Stages of Grief

Marcel Proust an early 20th Century French novelist, critic, and essayist suffered all his life. Through failed relationships, an overbearing mother and being homosexual at the wrong time. And for being born of ill health into a family of achievers.  It is perhaps not surprising then that he has something to teach us about suffering.

In Proust’s view, we don’t learn much until there is a problem. Until we are in pain. Until something fails to go as we had hoped. Pain makes us take notice and learn. It enables us to analyse things which we otherwise would know nothing about.

Though we can, of course, use our minds without being in pain, Proust suggests, we become inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think. And we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context.


Painful Thoughts

For Proust ideas that have arisen without pain lack a certain motivation. Mental activity  divides into two categories. There are painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort. And there are painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or recall a name. It is this latter category which Proust privileges.

He tells us that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom. Via a teacher or via life. The painful variety is the superior.

It is as if the mind were a squeamish organ that refused to entertain difficult truths unless encouraged to do so by difficult events. “Happiness is good for the body,” Proust tells us, “but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” These grief’s put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times.

It is perhaps only normal that we remain ignorant when things are blissful. When a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliations of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the incentive to confront difficult truths.


Suffering Well

Before subscribing to a Romantic cult of suffering, one should consider that suffering has, on its own, never been quite enough. Suffering does not mean you will learn from the experience.

Perhaps the greatest claim one can make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry. Possibilities that may be, and most often are, overlooked.

How can we learn to suffer better? Though philosophers are usually  concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be unhappy. The stubborn recurrence of misery means that the development of a workable approach to it must outstrip the value of any utopian quest for happiness. Proust, a veteran of grief, knew as much.

Unfortunately suffering often fails to convert into ideas. Instead of affording us a better sense of reality it pushes us into a negative direction. A direction where we learn nothing new. Where we are subject to many more illusions and entertain far fewer vital thoughts than if we had never suffered to begin with.

Proust’s fills his novel with those we might call bad sufferers, wretched souls who have been betrayed in love or excluded from parties. They are pained by a feeling of intellectual inadequacy or a sense of social inferiority.

These pains teach them nothing. 

Instead they react to them by engaging a variety of ruinous defence mechanisms which entail arrogance and delusion, cruelty and callousness, spite and rage.

That is the wrong way of suffering.

Suffer we must it seems, but there are many ways to do it. Some better than others.


This essay draws Alan de Botton’s book How Proust can Change Your Life. To learn more click here.

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