“Does suffering create wisdom?”

[some quotes here are lightly paraphrased to improve clarity from casual internet conversation]

On ask.fm (a social media site built around asking others questions, usually anonymously) a young guy asked me (and others) the following question, in his usual seeming manner of encouraging conversation:

Does suffering “create” wisdom, in your opinion? (Shahaf)

I responded in the negative:

“The more I dwell within my dank well of self-abusive melancholy and anxiety; the more I understand of it; the more I look in resigned horror at its inevitability and its deepening, purgatorial “agonies”; the dumber I get. Suffering creates suffering. It is its relief that unburdens the mind of the monomaniacal choking on its own tale like some kind of perverse ouroboros, and lets the mind tell and see with for itself, with clarity, more vivid and edifying stories.”

I worry the English language like a puppy at a very ornate shoe, pretty shamelessly to be honest, but my dogged bedraggling of semantics and grammar come up against a person (Shahaf, the questioner) who understands English as a second language very well, but does not necessarily understand English as a plaything of obsessively distracted whim. I feared, upon further questioning, that I’d said the opposite of intent, and asked if his was so. Shahaf responded, quoting me:

“It is its relief that unburdens the mind of the monomaniacal choking on its own tale like some kind of perverse ouroboros, and lets it tell and see for itself, with clarity, more vivid and edifying stories.” Although you clearly did say it makes you dumb, the last part of this part makes me think that you meant that through suffering the mind becomes more clear and is able to see things more clearly, gaining wisdom from what it has gone through, in other words […] The first part seems to speak from the outside point of view, of viewing suffering. But the second part feels more like it speaks from the sufferer’s experience. (Shahaf)

And I am glad I asked him, because I was right: I was wrong. I had lost the understanding of the intended audience, and said something that was taken to mean something unintended.

The following is my response, slightly edited for general consumption…

I will pull my own teeth and try for succinctness…

Suffering does not create wisdom. Wisdom, whatever that might be, comes in the absence of suffering. That is all I meant when I talk about the clarity of relief from suffering. Not “as a consequence”, not “We learn through suffering”, certainly not “What does not kill us makes us stronger”. Pain is pain is pain is pain, and wisdom is wisdom is wisdom is wisdom.

I will reinsert my teeth, and chase my keyboard…

(Note, my own suffering comes from poor mental health. My responses to questions of suffering have the statistical value of the anecdote. However…)

For me suffering is consuming. It allows no contemplation other than on itself, even if that contemplation is the gentle meaninglessness of forced distraction from and suppression of its consciousness. The nerves, thoughts, fibre of your being responds to suffering with the observation that you are suffering, a feedback loop that entangles all thoughts. There is no time for accumulating the wisdom of the sound of one hand clapping, or whatever is the difference between a duck, there is only suffering, or suffering imposing its deafening static on meaningful or mindful contemplation.

This is not to say that suffering, when relieved, might not provide some meaningful insight, if only into your own nature, that one might categorise as “wisdom”. But when I hear the wisdom of those that have suffered, I don’t think “Oh, something good was created by their suffering”. I’ll put this in the context of hypothetically going up to someone who has generously provided their edifying response to and experience of and  subsequence relief from the most awful things a vile world can have a person endure, and saying to them, “At least something good came of it all, hey?”. I’d expect to be rigorously cock-punched, and more, by a justified queue.

You see, in the presence of the kindness and beautiful character of people like, let’s say Kim Phúc, I begin to think the “what doesn’t kill me” thing, the idea of wisdom from suffering, is offensive. I think, choice given, those who experience such suffering would rather lose the suffering, have its causes negated, lose the unfairness and cruelty that brought it about, than have any subsequence wisdom borne by others as an ennobling experience. It is pain, it is horror, it is not a good – it not being is a good. To bring this over to a mental health context, but still not within my wheelhouse of experience, I wonder how those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) feel about the fetishisation of suffering. Are they made to feel less of a person, to feel inadequate, to feel they have failed, to feel “unwise” through the unwanted reliving of their trauma, to feel insufficiently informed by its continued disabling of their lives, to feel a loss of opportunity in their purported inability to become wise via the awfulness inflicted upon them. To, as a victim, feel blame for not being made “stronger”?

The idea that suffering creates wisdom feels like the kind of secondhand motivational memetic idea offered by people in the advantageous position of being able to “experience” suffering through another’s account, and from it “learning” to “be grateful”. Except I usually think they haven’t secondhand learnt anything, except maybe how to obtain a momentary feel-good flush, and to share their wisdom-boners on Facebook for Likes.

No, the fetishisation of suffering is an ill-thought, unwise analgesic for the lesser, necessary pain that comes from innate empathy.

But to my mental health…

I do not want to get into comparison shopping for suffering. I am aware that as horrors go they reach far, far deeper depths than any I can internally plumb in my own privileged psyche. But it is what I have, and so…

The entanglement of anxiety and chronic depression (or, to go terminological, according to my former psychologist: a lifetime of mostly untreated chronic depression, social anxiety and general anxiety, interspersed with frequent major depressive episodes – that is, I has a sad, a scared, and a suicidal)… the entanglement of these things with what I perceive as “me”, my character or personality, can make me think that these disorders are an essential part of my self. A person so acquitted with this concept of self can think that any particular skills they have, any innate talents, the who-they-ares, are entwined, even caused by, the mental illnesses. Thus we get the “tortured artist” trope, for example. Although I am not advocating for him as an advocate for mental health (if anything I’d take an oppositional footing on some things), Stephen Fry in his documentary on bipolar disorder (of which he suffers) expressed the opinion, or wonder, that maybe his bipolar disorder was the font for his and many others’ creativity. This is, for me, relatable, but under strong protest.

The tortured artist, the manic artist, the madman, the crazy, the deification of those who create from a pit, the aura of wisdom with which we imbue their internal agonies, the bravery we see in them, the iconification of so many self-imposed endings, “only the good die young”…the ennobling of insanity, ennobling of suffering, the being “grateful” for others’ pain while letting them fall into the nothing, the dark, in your stead… that isn’t wisdom, that is creation lost, that is a swirl of blackness, that is a scream drowning an aria, that is a person that could have been lightness and thought, that could have been wise, if it wasn’t for the suffering, if the suffering wasn’t held as an origin and an end, if the suffering was instead held as an abhorrence to be alleviated, if the babbling clamour of anhedonic internal cogitation was made to let the person inside it out. If relief, clarity, was provided.

So, I don’t hold with suffering creating wisdom. It is a concept fuelled by a fetish, an excuse, a repressive (self- and external), surrendering response to the feeling of inadequacy, of impotence, in the face of others’ pain. People who have suffered see with the clarity of those who haven’t, once the suffering is relieved – that is all I mean by “clarity”. Their experience, like all experience, their knowledge, like all knowledge, may enable wisdom to be presented in the midst of said clarity. But we should quest for the clarity, not its contrast. Don’t smack your head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop. Don’t let someone be smacked by a hammer because you get something from it when it stops. Don’t smack people with hammers because you think it is good for them when it stops.

Just put down the hammer, okay?

5 thoughts on ““Does suffering create wisdom?”

  1. My social psych lecturer gifted me with the following phrase earlier in the semester:

    “Protective adjustment”.

    In the cool, blunt world of academic psychology, the word “protective” does mean what it appears to mean on face value. But it also has the additional/widely accepted meaning in a psych context that it assists an individual to feel better or do better, whether that’s in the long-term or short-term. So where there risk factors that might mean a person is more likely to encounter trauma, or a mood disorder, or something like that which can affect their function and enjoyment of life, we say that “protective factors” might aid them in coping better or getting the help they need.

    The following is a definition of risk factors and protective factors embedded in a PDF on HIV/AIDS determinants (in order to try and help reduce numbers of adolescents contracting the disease worldwide, I believe, on my initial skim-read) but you can see it’s a general definition: http://www.who.int/hiv/pub/me/en/me_prev_ch4.pdf

    Using myself as an example,. when I was a teen, the risk factors in my life were violence and psychological abuse, as well as confusing sexuality issues that were dissonant against my religious upbringing, and there was also unidentified Autism Spectrum Disorder in one of my parents. But there were also protective factors that may help me, such as a financially secure/”privileged” situation, two female mentors who provided healthy models and alternative ways of thinking, physical health and fitness due to my love of dressage and jumping and running and cycling….

    So you can see here that the entire question of suffering/trauma/poor mental health >>> wisdom/okayness/function/outcomes can be reframed in a different way and in this way it’s more accurately reflective of the complexity of the human experience. You’re quite rightly pointing out that this suffering = wisdom construct is just way too simple an expression of a very complex and subjective experience. It also totally fails to take into account the main driver of the whole thing: time.

    Well said, as usual, Mr Lawrence. x

    1. Roz, thank-you so much for this, for adding your far more-learned words. For anyone else, I follow and heartily recommend her blog:


      As a student, as well as someone with, as above, her own unique degrees of experience, her insights and observations always have me thinking, reassessing, enlightened.

  2. When I taught creative writing, I spent some class time debunking the myth of the suffering artist. One young woman, the light bulb visibly going on above her head, put it best: “Yeah, it feels so much better to feel good.”
    Many people need to believe, however, that their suffering has some significance, the belief perhaps making it more bearable. Fine with me as long as they avoid that nauseating cliche, “Everything happens for a reason.”

    1. It’s a weird feeling, because the suffering feels creative, feels most meaningful, possibly because it consumes with a sense of meaning (as you say, “significance”), but coming out of it, on an upswing, I see my writing and photography in relative terms is better. And then I forget it all again when the downfall comes upon me again. I see the suffering artist trope as a temptation for myself, because of its unfortunate respect, and sometimes need your kind of debunking.

      I too hate that cliche… if anything it just instills in me the (ironically sometimes reassuring) reaction that nothing happens for any reason.

      As a postscript, I regret the reason that I was not born into all the relevant circumstances to place me in your creative writing class.

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