All of human existence, when viewed from the whole, is the eternal repetition of a three-fold cycle that we may call “suffering.” Within this cycle, human beings are thrust between inter-related stages of misery that constitute our lamentable condition of being-in-the-world. This primordial suffering, in turn, finds equal expression through the existential structure of lived time.
This cycle of suffering in turn is grounded in our being in time. Accordingly, it rests upon a necessary relationship with the type of beings for whom we are -in which we experience the subjectivity of our being-there grounded in (existential) temporality.
It’s no coincidence that the cycle of suffering shares a similar structure with lived time. This is necessarily so because it is our primordial relationship with our being-ness as expressed through time itself that invites us to suffer in the first place. Accordingly, the threefold cycle of suffering parallels the structure by which we exist in time, namely:
– Striving (future): striving refers to the type of suffering grounded in the individual’s concern for itself stretched through time, into an indefinite and temporal future. Human beings do not see themselves as merely existing in the present; rather, their being matters to them, and they take up this concern for existence through their own possibilities (projected into the future).
Thus, for each and every individual, it is his own future being that becomes primary. He is constantly re-affirming himself through his future possibilities; accordingly, his anticipation of the future determines his present course of action and disposition towards himself as he conceives himself, his past awareness of himself, and the world in which he always already finds himself.
It is the anticipation of future possibilities coming into actuality in which this level of suffering takes shape. Insofar as he anticipates a particular outcome or possibility, the individual must necessarily acknowledge a deficiency in his current being-in-the-world. If I set out to become a distinguished professor, it necessarily follows that I must acknowledge myself now as not a distinguished professor. Insofar as I make this my project, it becomes my meaningful commitment for my being. But, insofar as I remain unsatisfied in the completion of my project, I am less than the expectation that I set for myself.
The suffering of striving is increased by virtue of the fact that I never am my projects. One does not attain the rank of “distinguished professor” and then simply stop as if the mere recognition of status were simply enough; rather, one must continuously do what a distinguished professor does. If I do not write, research, have any students, or partake in the activities for which it means to be a distinguished professor — then I am not a distinguished professor.
Thus, the projects and goals for which we strive for are never truly “complete,” and thus we never attain the satisfaction of what we think it means “to be” that which we sought ought to become. Instead, we are suspended in perpetual becoming — never centered or grounded in our being but rather undergoing the arduous process of re-affirming our individual commitment to our defining projects. In short, I will never “be” a distinguished professor; rather, I will always forever find myself “becoming” a distinguished professor, despite the contrary conclusion which may be drawn from our ordinary usage of the verb “be.”
Likewise, striving always puts us at a grave risk for frustration, failure, and disappointment. In this sense, striving always puts the individual at the risk of not achieving that which he sought ought to become, giving rise then to feelings of disappointment, disenchantment, or other negative feelings towards one’s self and the world. With sufficient regularity, such disappointment or frustration can lead to a rejection of striving and total detachment from the possibilities that give rise to one’s meaningful relation to himself.
– Anguish (past): Anguish is the level of suffering centered in the past. It is the expression of disharmony or imbalance within the self and its relation to the world and/or its own self. However, it should be noted that anguish need not necessarily manifest itself as a form of suffering about or over the past, though it certainly is possible (as in the feeling of regret).
Rather, in anguish, there is a breakdown in the self’s reflective relation to its past as the defining source of the content of its own self and its correlative worth to itself. Insofar as I can know myself, it is to the extent that I am capable of seeing myself as having a definite past, in which I interpret as a whole that which constitutes and gives intelligible meaning to my concrete and individual existence. Thus, the “I” (insofar as this may be said to exist) is not merely the material constituent parts that make up my body as it “exists” in space and time; nor is it the “mental stuff” for which my personality, my experience, my interiority are merely objective manifestations of; rather, the “I” is the expression of my relation to my own self as it relates to itself through existential or lived time.
When I reflect on my individual past, I recall specific memories. For me, these are never general nor abstract, but always concrete; this is so because (to me) they did not happen to an amorphous “someone,” but rather the concrete me — a subjectively existing individual whose being matters for him. In this way, I am able to derive from my own relation to my past in lived-time that it was the same “I” that occupies my memories as the “I” that is thinking about those memories now.
This complex series of relations in which the very “mine-ness” of my own self is made possible is always vulnerable to categorical break-downs. It is in these “breakdowns” in the self’s relationship to itself that the suffering of anguish takes form. For instance, I may lose all connection to myself as a self, or perhaps never become aware of myself as a self (and thus not be a self); I may recognize myself as a self but reject becoming myself. In its concrete forms, anguish gives rise to moods focusing on hyper-reflection inwards and onto the self, such as despair, certain forms of depression, melancholy, and other acute or chronic expressions of discordant relations of the self.
– Boredom (present): Boredom, as the third form of suffering, is unique in that it generally is understood not on account of any particular content or attributes which distinguish it from the other levels of suffering, but rather, its form. Generally speaking, boredom is the withdrawal of the related meaningfulness of being-in-the-world.
Boredom itself can be sub-divided into three distinctive stages, all of which represent, to varying degrees of intensity, the aforementioned withdrawal of individual meaning — either meaning in the world, meaning within the self, or total collapse of all meaning into nothginess. For more on the specific levels of boredom, click here.
From his lamentable birth to his lonely death, all individual human beings are thrown about within this cycle, tossed between each stage with neither purpose nor reason. The relationship between time and the cycle of suffering is expressed trough the type of beings we are — for we are the type of beings who care about our being-in-the-world.
Accordingly we are always already immersed within this cycle due to the ontological structure of being itself. Thus, what Heidegger called the “Care” structure, may properly be understood as the “root” or “grounding” of existential suffering.
Furthermore, there is no “progression” or hierarchy of suffering; this is so because it is cyclical, not linear. One does not undergo any growth or transfiguration between striving and anguish; anguish and boredom; or boredom and striving. Each stage is itself both self-sufficient but at the same time co-related to the next, and human existence as such is destined to exist through each stage, forever repeating itself.
This three-fold cycle expresses itself through our disposedness to the world, or rather, our “moods.” Our moods disclose to us (and, when articulated, to others) how it’s going in the world. Our moods reflect our insights into our own being-in-the-world, and thus are never entirely interior or affective mental states.
Certain moods express more clearly which stage of suffering any given individual may be experiencing. For instance, anxiety or dread is an expression of striving (future); whereas despair and sadness are expressions of anguish (past). Moreover, the vast complex of moods can express a simultaneous overlapping of different levels of suffering. For example, general melancholy may be found primarily in anguish, but certain forms may express all three stages of suffering.
I am fully convinced that the greatest gift nature ever endowed man is the ability to forget.
This is all the more so in light of the fact that the very moment we enter the world is itself wrought with trauma and suffering. If only we could remember what it must have been like to be forced out of the comforts of the womb, only to be violently thrown out from our miniature and cozy abode into this, the most despicable and contemptible, world? If only we remembered — would we not curse our mothers forever?
That we are incapable of remembering the tragedy of our own birth is perhaps the greatest gift of all. If it were not so, I imagine the ensuing result would be nothing less than mass suicide.
In spite of this, there is a sense in which nature had in mind something especially vindictive with respect to its most tragic creation (i.e., man) when it endowed him with memory. This is all the more illustrated by the fact that we are more inclined to remember our moments of suffering, whether intense of banal, than our fleeting moments of contentedness or joy.
When I think about it (or rather, when I stop from making an affirmative effort to not think about it), I can say with all confidence that my most distinct and lucid memories are also the most horrendous. Just a quick survey of what I remember most from my 27 years of being in the world is enough to make me want to go into a deep coma forever. What’s most telling, though, is that I not only remember the specific events that brought about or surrounded my misery…but I am also able (or unfortunate enough) to remember the distinct intensify of my suffering, and how miserable it made me feel. Thus, we are not only more likely to remember the quantity of our suffering — but, by some cruel joke of nature, the qualitative intensity of our suffering.
There is no corresponding phenomena when I attempt to look back into the depths of my memory for those so-called “happy moments.” Even when I am able to recall those moments where I, at the very least, thought I was happy — I have no sense or recollection as to how happy I felt, and certainly nothing that would compare to remembering the feeling of suffering accompanying my most dreadful memories.
Thus, even where nature has given man an immediate capacity in the form of forgetfulness to relieve him of his suffering, it is still wholly inadequate for the task — for it is altogether incapable of walling him off entirely against he invariable onslaught of misery, sadness, agony, anguish, and disappointment that both defines and awaits him.
Of all the asinine things that people tend to do, the habit of discounting suffering, my suffering, as if there were an objective standard of measurement by which one’s own suffering may be compared to — is the most asinine of all.
Experiential suffering always and only exists in actuality in the internal contradictions of the consciousness of the Self. In this sense, suffering is first and foremost beyond the reach of the objectifying tendencies of empirical knowledge.
To the “Others,” it may only become “knowable” through existence. That is, the Self exists in the world through his suffering. In such a way, the suffering is transfigured from subjectivity to objectivity. There is no “correspondence” between my sensation of suffering and the outside world; nothing by which it may be compared to — and thus no hierarchy upon which my own suffering may placed in comparison to the suffering of others.
It is in this sense that my suffering is absolute for me. It is my subjective truth — dwelling far within the depths of my being where the illusion of “objective knowledge” is wholly inadequate.
A common theme throughout the history of philosophical pessimism is the argument that the aggregate suffering experienced by man in the world exceeds his aggregate feelings of pleasure and joy.
Even taking pleasure/joy as a negative, insofar as it may be construed as the absence of pain, rather than a positive or affirmative affective state constituted with its own independent qualities — there seems an intuitive basis for affirming this observation. For, in its most basic form, this line of pessimistic argument is entirely empirical and descriptive. In other words, it is not concerned with making evaluative judgments about the world. Rather, it’s a claim that has become so obvious and self-evidence that it takes the form of a modern-day truism. Of the over seven billion people in the world, how many lives are touched with disease, squalor, war, natural disaster or any other form of catastrophe known to man?
The argument that existence is indelibly marked with more suffering is a baseline for pessimistic thought; however, it is not altogether that convincing or sophisticated. Even the optimist may concede that, as it is, suffering outweighs pleasure. In fact, it may even be said that this realization is the grounding upon which the prophets of progress build their visions of hope and human betterment for the future.
Further, the inherently reverse-utilitarian reasoning behind this argument simply cannot account for the experiences and subjective accounts of the individual Self thrust into existence. For, what matters most to me as an individual Self is my unique experience in-the-world; what does it mean for me, as a temporal and finite being in my facticity, my coping, and my projection, that aggregated suffering exceeds pleasure?
Another limitation of the suffering-exceeds-pleasure argument is its failure to account for the possibility that, some individuals, though always constituting a minority, may experience far more pleasure in their individual lives than suffering; in fact, what about the potential that this minority’s experience of pleasure, if it could be individually quantified or measured on some scale, could (though quantitatively inferior to the suffering of the world) nevertheless qualitatively exceed suffering?
This latter point is the true defect, or rather, insufficiency of the argument. Thus, what’s needed is a thorough investigation of the phenomena of suffering itself. Only a phenomenological account of the experience of suffering can get to the bottom of this matter. In particular — we must separate and provide an account for both ontological and ontic suffering.
In one of his most illuminating observations on human existence, Arthur Schopenhauer made the case that there is no such thing as a “positive” happiness, or, to put it another way, that happiness is something that exists, in itself, with definitive characteristics or qualities. Rather, happiness is negative, defined by the absence of suffering, pain, and despair. Such a position is critical to Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism.
Nevertheless, try convincing someone of this and they will tell you that it’s at odds with how we, as human beings, actually experience happiness. The problem with this response is that it really fails to acknowledge that happiness is an impulsive reaction to some stimulus or circumstance.
To make this point more appreciable, just consider everyday experience. Nobody is happy at all times. Such a notion is simply at odds with how we perceive existence. I’ve never met a person who is always happy. I’ve met people who are generally upbeat, more prone to looking on the “bright side,” and even those who make a conscious effort not to let the world “get them down.” But this is not happy. It’s taking a particular stand on one’s own life, and conscientiously creating a veil in which to see the world.
If we were capable of being constantly happy, then it would stand that many people would be happy without even knowing it. This too seems to fly in the face of experience — for how could we be happy without knowing it?
On the other hand, you may live in extensive suffering. You may suffer and not even know you’re suffering. In a way, the feeling of happiness is only a fleeting abatement of that suffering. This is what gives “happiness” the feeling of being positive — as if some thing has been added to our life.
Schopenhauer is again helpful in demonstrating this point. In his famous example of how we perceive suffering, he uses the example of the body’s discomfort. We don’t notice that our body is doing well: that our heart is circulating blood efficiently, that our lungs are working properly, or that our brain is telling our muscles to contract in appropriate situations. We do recognize, on the other hand, when something goes wrong. We take notice of when something in our body isn’t working — say, for example, a runny nose or a deep cough. To further push the point, we don’t notice when our shoes fit correctly; but our attention is immediately drawn to the discomfort and pain inflicted on our foot when our shoes don’t fit.
Understanding happiness as a negative, and suffering as the positive, is key to stripping away the illusion that the purpose of our existence is indeed “happiness.”