For many years, “conventional wisdom” (often not wisdom at all) has preached to us that “suffering strengthens character.” We nod wisely and walk away – while quietly wondering how that can possibly be the case. What suffering can actually do for you is to help focus your perspective, i.e., the way you look at things, especially adversity. In a crisis, it’s make-or-break, and you’re forced to bring all your intelligence and character into play. In such a case, it’s not suffering that creates or strengthens your character; it’s the situation that’s causing the suffering that brings otherwise dormant strength, character and intelligence to life. But we should not have to depend on suffering and pain to create, strengthen or bring character to life. The character and capability we possess must be something we actualize and live – for our own sake – in daily life.
Suffering is not something we seek out. In fact, we need to be vigilant to reduce, eliminate or eradicate suffering wherever possible. It’s a dangerous rationalization to claim that suffering brings about something good. While it’s true that life can be good despite one’s suffering, it’s a terrible mistake to try to rationalize away the pain by convincing ourselves that suffering is the cause of that strength or happiness. In other words, in spite of what some of us might have been taught in elementary school, suffering is never an end in itself. The avoidance of suffering is a goal. It’s not a primary goal, however; a dedication to living a happy, self-interested life must the overriding goal. These endeavors can lead to some suffering – or to less suffering than would otherwise be the case. Bottom line: No, suffering does not “strengthen character.”
Character is built through rationality, self-responsibility and capability. Though suffering, disappointment and failure can often be part of the process, these character-building traits should not lead to suffering. Once they occur, it’s healthy to view these things as opportunities to become stronger and wiser. But you’d never seek these things out. You don’t have to depend on failure in order to do well. So much for “conventional wisdom.”
Sadly, there are people out there who need suffering in order to feel better about themselves. Another’s suffering makes them feel less alone, or makes them feel useful because they can “be the hero” by trying to relieve another’s suffering. Of course, helping and comforting another person is a good and noble thing, but if it’s done with a hidden, self-serving agenda, then it’s not so good and noble. While spontaneous and sincere generosity may be beautiful things, a lot of giving can have a darker side and we have to be careful.
I talk to people who actually enjoy suffering because it makes them look like martyrs. One of the most destructive ideas that good people have allowed themselves to accept is the false idea that self-sacrifice is good. When one suffers, it offers some sort of irrefutable proof that “I’m sacrificing, and therefore I’m good.” Truly perverse, when you think about it.
Suffering is not a badge of honor or virtue. Escaping it is where the virtue comes in. When you achieve success and happiness – so long as you came about it honestly – that’s a badge of virtue. Many people have it backwards both ethically and psychologically. They’ve been sold the false bill of goods that self-sacrifice is virtuous and that suffering that results from that somehow strengthens character. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
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