When people reflect on the hardest periods of their life — whether those be disease, loss, trauma or anything else — they inevitably mention how they are glad they had to endure what they did. They’ll say something like how it taught them about what “really matters in life” or that they “became a better person for it”. Though the specific wording may be different, it always remains the case that they say their suffering changed things for the better.
Make no mistake about it though, because this only ever occurs upon reflection. There is not a hungry person in the world who is glad they can’t afford food nor is there any sick person who doesn’t want to get better. It seems out of place and in poor taste that people reflect back almost fondly on their hardest times. And what about those who were sick and never recovered? Surely their sickness was not the best thing to happen to them, and it is peculiar that someone would think it benefited anybody.
Colleges ask us to write about our hardest experiences and how we overcame them. However, I would bet that in most essays, people write more about their hardship than their overcoming of it. We feel the need to qualify our experiences while remaining humble in tone. We wonder if the person reading the essay will even believe our stories. It is inevitable that students write more about their suffering than their perseverance, especially because only the former can exist on its own. The definition of perseverance necessitates suffering, so you cannot describe your bravery or strength without giving credit to that which tested it.
Even if the goal of the essay is to write about overcoming, it almost never comes off that way. This is because true perseverance is nothing glamorous and because every student knows that every other student is writing the same essay. Our suffering does not typically take the form of a singular action or event. If we were all Batman, we could write about defeating the Joker in some awesome and inspiring way. But when we battle depression, sickness, poverty, or anything else, our overcoming has no spectacle. When the bravest thing you can do is get out of bed, go to school, and be kind to others, there is little about which we can write. Nobody wants to read an essay about the time you were having a bad day, fighting thoughts of self-loathing, struggling to stay awake, on the verge of tears… and managed to get an 88 percent on your math test. Nobody wants to hear about the time you lost your faith in God and were angry with your parents but still managed to thank the lunch lady for dropping that glob of goo on your tray.
Couple the above with the fact that all students are competing for a spot at any given college, and you get a situation where the most important things and the only unique things that distinguish students from one another are their different hurdles. When you experience something that interferes with your day-to-day life, day-to-day activities are the hardest to accomplish. But as we know that these make for boring stories, we are left with no choice but to write about how we experienced hardship because of our particular circumstances. What happened to us becomes more important than what we did and becomes who we are.
Our society calls for uniqueness. It demands that we prove how we are different from everyone else and that we show how we stand out from the group. But we should keep in mind that the group is made from others who are attempting to do the same thing. Furthermore, when we feel the need to prove ourselves as unique, we concede the point that we are not special until proven otherwise. The things that truly make us unique are our thoughts, our actions, and our beliefs, but these require time to prove. We don’t walk around with cards listing our takes on every important political issue, or our aesthetic theories, or our opinions about what music is best, but we can walk around with different hair or different clothes. We rely on heuristics to prove ourselves to be unique and being unique becomes performative and external to us instead of intrinsic.
When we tell stories in the process of making new friends, we choose the stories that are safe and make us look unique. The safest stories to tell are the ones that happen to us rather than because of us, because we don’t have to take responsibility for anything that happens. The stories we tell often involve misfortune of some kind because we remember those so well, but we don’t want to tell the ones where we caused the misfortune. We would rather people feel pity for us than contempt. So, we end up introducing ourselves with stories of misfortune about us, and we further cement the idea that the misfortune actually is us.
Now we end up on campuses where students brag about their lack of sleep, about their depression, their nihilism. That has become a badge of honor and most of us are guilty of falling into that trap. We think for some reason that if we are tired and depressed, we are more legit. Nobody likes the guy who works hard and finishes his work in time to get plenty of rest. We worship the troubled artist and the idea that suffering produces greatness rather than happiness. And now getting sick is the best thing that can happen to us.
The idea that suffering holds no greater purpose and only hurts us is a scary one. It is difficult to look at our lowest moments and admit how horrible they were. It is even more difficult to look at them and understand we would be better off without them. It is hard to throw away things we don’t need, whether they be physical or mental.
Plenty of philosophers have commented on suffering. In fact, it is likely that they all did at some point. Plato said that nothing could truly harm the righteous and happy man while Camus argued that we need to take pleasure in our fruitless search for meaning and in our suffering human condition. For my money though, Aristotle had it right all those years ago. It was his opinion that it was absurd to think of a man in extreme poverty as happy. He thought that sickness and death and suffering only got in the way of our happiness, and I am inclined to agree.
Even if we say that our suffering was the best thing to ever happen to us, we still agree with Aristotle deep down. If it was the case that suffering made our lives better and made us better people, we would be justified in cursing our parents for giving us good lives. We should be angry that they strove for us to have it easier than they did. Who are they to hog all the good hardship?
I only have left to say that the cult of suffering is real, and that most of us are members despite having no memory of signing up. None of that matters. The only thing to do is examine our own lives and ask ourselves if our suffering is necessary, if we are using it for attention or as an excuse, and if we can stop it simply by rejecting it. We could all be much happier if we just let ourselves be, because sometimes it is that easy.
Willy Magnin is a student at the University of Chicago studying economics and music. You can read more of his work at The Chicago Maroon.