Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Making Sense of Suffering?

We all suffer about something.  Sometimes we are simply prisoners of our misplaced and unfulfilled desires, sometimes terrible things out of our control happen to us, sometimes suffering results from things we choose to do.  Suffering can be physical, mental or both.  Can we make any sense of it? Can suffering ever be a good thing?  Lance Armstrong used to talk about managing his suffering during a tough race, how does that physical suffering compare to what he is experiencing in exile from the fame and glory he pursued so relentlessly and ruthlessly?  These general topics were the topic of a challenging essay about suffering by Pico Iyer I recently read that got me thinking about a few things.


Explaining Suffering

All major religions, theories about psychology, philosophical systems and the arts try to explain why we suffer and perhaps what we can do about it.   Buddhism is noted for its linkage between our inability to grasp impermanence, attachment to things, desire and ultimately suffering.  The beginning of the novel the “A Burn-Out Case” starts with the comment:


“I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive” and ends with “I suffer, therefore I am”…….


Graham Greene who wrote the book suffered from manic-depressive disease and by all accounts surely knew what he was talking about.


What Can We Do?

There is a line of reasoning that goes something like we don’t always have control over the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we do have at least some control over how we respond to the circumstances we are in.  The basketball coach John Wooden simplified that idea and simply said “don’t permit what you cannot do to interfere with what you can do”.   But what happens when you find yourself in an unimaginable set of circumstances like a concentration camp?  That is what happened to the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search For Meaning shows that it is possible to do constructive things and remain hopeful in the bleakest of circumstances.  What lessons can we learn from his experiences that apply to the more routine ways that we all suffer?


John Wooden, whose approach to basketball had a mystical element as he sought to teach his players lessons they could use later in life, developed a “pyramid of success”.  At the bottom of the version below he says among other things:


“Don’t look at the scoreboard……Adversity is your asset…..Seek significant change”


How many of us have the courage to stop looking at the scoreboard, use adversity constructively and really change significantly in the face of it?  Gary Player the golfer said his ability to do well in big tournaments was based on his ability “accept adversity”.   Did the death of his mother at age 8 and seeing his older brother leave for World War II give him the adaptability needed to make the best of any situation later in life?   How do we develop the resilience to manage our own suffering and make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in?


No Answers

I have no answers to the questions I have raised and I have no metaphysical explanations about suffering, what it might mean, or where it comes from.  I do know that books by and about Graham Greene, Viktor Frankl and John Wooden have been very helpful to me as I confront my own circumstances and the fear and suffering associated with daily life.





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