In many ways, we are often taught that suffering is something to be avoided. In many ways, this is true. Reducing war, poverty, starvation, climate damage, among others, is a noble goal. Working towards the elimination of involuntary suffering is something that should be lauded, and is one of the few things that I find to be “Good” with a capital “G.”
However, it seems to me that, within this scope of reducing involuntary suffering, we have lost the employment of the word involuntary – American society (from what I have witnessed) seems to encourage the abolition of not only voluntary suffering, but any and all hardship.
Voluntary suffering takes many different forms. Going to the gym, higher education, raising a child, working through marital struggles, going to therapy, among many other things are all what I would classify as willingly suffering.
One thing that I do not want to assert is that suffering without a goal in mind. Suffering is something that allows us to grow as people, as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, as community members. However, this is only the case if we approach suffering with intentionality. Wallowing in self-pity, griping about our shitty jobs (which is a legitimate concern in our neoliberal political climate, but this is a whole different conversation), endless scrolling on social media to deliberately make ourselves angry and, perhaps most importantly, falling into despair. These are all glimpses into suffering without intentionality, without purpose.
So what is the virtue in suffering in a voluntary, intentional manner? It is the recognition that the willingness to grow, even in the face of its difficulty, is something that is inherently Good (with a capital G). To reject the necessity of suffering is to stagnate, to be incapable of growth towards a greater spiritual, moral of physical self.
Engaging in suffering willingly is to recognize that we are flawed, that we need to grow, and that by enduring a challenge we are able to remedy or alleviate, to some degree, this inner blemish on our personhood.
Within this conversation, it is important to remember that these blemishes are reminders of what we can be, and that to become better than these pitfalls make us, we must engage in the struggle of self improvement. To become complacent, to accept these flaws as something a part of us and something to be accepted and perhaps even be lauded is the opposite of voluntary suffering, and this belief is a blemish on the American landscape. This blemish must be addressed and intentionally eradicated, just like the individual must address, suffer and eradicate the blemishes in their soul.
To suffer, to grow and to improve as a human being is Good. To become complacent, to accept our failings and integrate them into ourselves and our society is Evil; to address evil, we must willingly, intentionally and voluntarily engage in the pain of self improvement.