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Are there Some Things that

Only Suffering can Teach Us?

There is one psychological peculiarity in the human being that always strikes one: to shun even the slightest signs of trouble on the outer edge of your existence at times of try not to know about the sufferings of others, to yield in many situations, even important spiritual and central ones—as long as it prolongs one’s well-being.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Almost immediately after starting Exeter I became miserably unhappy. The reasons for my unhappiness were totally obscure to me then and are still quite profoundly mysterious to me today. I just did not seem to fit. I didn’t seem to fit with the faculty, the students, the courses, the architecture, the social life, the total environment. Yet there seemed nothing to do other than to try to make the best of it and try to mould my imperfections so that I could fit more comfortably into this pattern that had been laid out for me and that was so obviously the right pattern. And try I did for two and a half years. Yet daily my life appeared more meaningless and I felt more wretched. The last year I did little but sleep, for only in sleep could I find any comfort.

M. Scott Peck

For a long time my place at meditation was near a Sister who fidgeted incessantly, either with her rosary or with something else... I cannot tell you to what an extent I was tried by the irritating noise... I remained quiet, but the effort cost me so much that sometimes I was bathed in perspiration, and my meditation consisted merely in the prayer of suffering.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

[During the second world war, Malcolm Muggeridge was sent by British Intelligence to the Portuguese colony of Angola, where he attempted, with considerable success, to counter the efforts of his opposite numbers—the Italian Consul-General, Campini, and the German Consul-General, Leopold Wertz. They all lodged at the Polana Hotel and hung out at the Penguin nightclub. For a man of his temperament these circumstances were ideally suited to drive him to despair.]

It was now that the absurdity, the futility, the degradation of how I had been living seized me with irresistible force. The fact that my activities were nominally related to the conduct of war, and might even be interpreted as having been, within their own preposterous terms of reference, effective, even successful and deserving of commendation, only made them the more distasteful to me. One particular night, after returning from the Penguin, I lay on my bed full of stale liquor and despair; alone in the house, and, as it seemed, utterly alone, not just in Lourenço Marques, in Africa, in the world... Elsewhere, on battlefields men were killing and dying. I envied them; it was a solution and a solace of sorts. After all, the only bearable thing about war is the killing and dying. That is its point. In the Blitz, with, as I thought, London falling about my ears, I had felt a kind of contentment; here in this remote forgotten corner of the world, I fell into the final abyss of despair. Deprived of war’s only solace—death, given and received, it came into my mind that there was, after all, one death I could still procure. My own. I decided to kill myself.

Most of the avoidable suffering in life springs from our attempts to escape the unavoidable suffering inherent in the fragmentary nature of our present existence. We expect immortal satisfactions from mortal conditions, and lasting and perfect happiness in the midst of universal change. To encourage this expectation, to persuade mankind that the ideal is realisable in this world after a few preliminary changes in external conditions, is the distinguishing mark of all charlatans.

Hugh Kingsmill

[Bertrand Russell was present when the wife of his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, was undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain due to heart trouble. He was 29 at the time, and in the following excerpt from his autobiography he described the effect this experience had on him.]

She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Every since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region...

At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances. Having been an Imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer and a Pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange excitement possessed me, containing intense pain but also some element of triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight which I then imagined myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations.

Thoughts about Suffering

Adversity is the trial of principle. Without it a man hardly knows whether he is honest or not.

Henry Fielding

Adversity makes men think of God.


Beyond a certain pitch of suffering, men are overcome by a kind of ghostly indifference.

Victor Hugo

Do you not see how a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?

John Keats

There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limits.

C. S. Lewis

I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits.

Samuel Johnson

The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.

It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.

Somerset Maugham

Suffering, misfortune, or exploitation tends to bring out the unlovable side of human beings.

Learning from experience means, in practice, learning from suffering; the only schoolmaster.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Man cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor.

Alexis Carrel

For purposes of spiritual growth a life that is merely comfortable is useless.   NEW LINK (Jun 7/24)

Man must learn to think of himself as a limited and dependent being, and only suffering teaches him this.

Simone Weil

If there were no suffering man would not know his limitations, would not know himself.


Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

Carl Jung

The tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.

People have a way of hanging on to what makes them miserable. At least they know what they’ve got.

George Burns

Suffering is, in its own way, an absolute; insofar as it is going on, there is no comfort; if there were, it wouldn’t be suffering.

I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live, but I am told that this is a common experience.

Evelyn Waugh (after his first wife left him)

The bitterness of childish distress does not lie in the fact that they are large; it lies in the fact that we do not know that they are small. About any early disaster there is a dreadful finality; a lost child can suffer like a lost soul.

G. K. Chesterton

The cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative.

Samuel Johnson

The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings.

William Hazlitt

The one thing that would make suffering intolerable would be the thought that it was systematically inflicted upon sinners. On the other hand, the doctrine which makes it most endurable is exactly the opposite doctrine, that suffering may be a strange honour and not a vulgar punishment.

G. K. Chesterton

I was drawn to suffering. It had about it a charm which delighted me, though I didn’t really understand much about this charm, for until then I had suffered without loving suffering. But from that day I felt a deep, true love for it.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.


The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.

Thomas Merton

When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.

Hamlet (Claudius)

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