What do we do with suffering?
This is a question Nick Cave — author, musician, and Bad Seeds front man — can answer better than most. The death of his son inspired his last albums, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen- two highlights in an impressive and expansive discography.
Last month, Cave experienced another tragedy with the passing of his lifelong collaborator Anita Lane. Following the event, a fan wrote to Cave asking if there is value in suffering. And wondering if there is anything we can do to stop from being crushed beneath it’s unbearable weight?
He had this to say:
“What do we do with suffering? As far as I can see, we have two choices — we either transform our suffering into something else, or we hold on to it, and eventually pass it on.”
Cave frames the utility of suffering not as a question, but a choice.
To live is to suffer. It’s inevitable — a painful price for being human. All of us experience death, decay, heartbreak, betrayal. We cannot avoid this, but we can choose what we do with it:
Hold onto it.
Or transform it into something else.
To choose the second option Cave believes:
“We must acknowledge that all people suffer. By understanding that suffering is the universal unifying force, we can see people more compassionately, and this goes some way toward helping us forgive the world and ourselves. By acting compassionately we reduce the world’s net suffering, and defiantly rehabilitate the world. It is an alchemical act that transforms pain into beauty.”
In the moment, suffering acts as an agent of alienation- a reminder of the personal toll of the world’s woes. But when viewed broadly, suffering unites us.
We all suffer. This is a fact so universal that the Buddha made it the First Noble Truth of his religion. The philosophies of Existentialists like Albert Camus and Victor Frankl hinge on the existence of suffering and our ability to find meaning in its midst.
To some, this is unwelcome information. Who wants to be reminded that everyone on the planet is bonded by suffering? But as Cave points out, this realization opens the door for healing and empathy. It connects us. Allows us to act compassionately, which ultimately minimizes the net suffering in the world.
The alternative, to hold onto our pain, leads to something much more sinister:
“To not transform our suffering and instead transmit our pain to others, in the form of abuse, torture, hatred, misanthropy, cynicism, blaming and victimhood, compounds the world’s suffering. Most sin is simply one person’s suffering passed on to another.”
When we refuse to relinquish our suffering, we feed it and pass it on. This choice shrinks us. It isolates us. It latches on to the worst parts of ourselves and spreads them like a virus.
It’s tempting to dismiss the idea of karma, but through this lens it makes sense. Acting in bad faith not only transmits your pain, but poisons the world we all live in. Everyone, you included, is worse off for it.
So, ultimately what is the utility of our suffering?
Cave asserts it affords us the opportunity to become better human beings.
The ability to transform that which feels personal and painful into something uniting and affirming is perhaps the most beautiful act we’re capable of. As Cave says: it is the engine of our redemption.
This idea gives me hope. I hope it does for you too.
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