We all suffer, but is it anything more than a sensation to be avoided or grudgingly endured? In different ways, both Nietzsche and Nassim Taleb have something useful to say.
Nietzsche thought suffering was vital, so vital in fact, that he wished it on his friends (it is unclear how many he had).
From Beyond Good and Evil, part 225:
You want if possible – and there is no madder ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering; and we? – it really does seem that we would rather increase it and make it worse than it has ever been! Wellbeing as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state which soon renders man ludicrous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed on it – has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?
Poetic as it sounds, how might ‘the discipline of great suffering‘ help in practice?
Let’s fast forward to The Black Swan, where Taleb argues that the non-linear nature of the modern world condemns people in many professions or pursuits to years, even decades, of labour with few results to show for it.
Positive lumpy outcomes, for which we either collect big or get nothing, prevail in numerous occupations, those invested with a sense of mission, such as doggedly pursuing (in a smelly laboratory) the elusive cure for cancer, writing a book that will change the way people view the world (while living hand to mouth), making music, or painting miniature icons on subway trains
Our emotional apparatus is designed for linear causality. For instance, if you study every day, you expect to learn something in proportion to your studies. If you feel that you are not going anywhere, your emotions will cause you to become demoralised. But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing
How does this connect to what Nietzsche was saying?
Well, one of Nietzsche’s central points is the importance of individuals pursuing their ‘will to power,’ an ambiguous phrase that refers to those drives which originate in the core of an individual’s identity and emerge in its free, creative, expression. He thought society, religion, and our own weaknesses conspired against us, offering easy truths and pre-packaged alternatives to the terrifying task of becoming a self, becoming oneself.
This task requires us to silence the doubts within and without, reject social conventions, and strike out alone. As a consequence, the creative flowering of the individual’s identity often goes with (and through) profound loneliness and suffering. For Nietzsche, learning to endure suffering is essential because suffering is an inherent part of living as an independent human.
Taleb seems to agree: suffering is the price we pay for pursuing non-linear pursuits, whether creative, intellectual, or personal:
“Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.”
Where Nietzsche advocated we become true iconoclasts, Taleb’s recommendation is more attractive and realistic alternative:
It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation – but we have the freedom to choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school… A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together – which is better than being ostracized alone.