sötétben by Zoltán Horlik CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A while ago I was about to embark in a long air travel and wanted something to read. I was in a town with one of those increasingly rare old-fashioned independent bookstores. So I felt a certain thrill when I decided to go in and buy a physical book, like in the good old days. I saw Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, skimmed briefly the plot summary, and on an impulse I bought it.

I felt a little nervous, because it seemed to be a melancholic book, possibly an uneasy read. For the past decade, I have been avoiding watching, reading, or hearing about unsettling stories. I used to love books and movies that made me burst into tears, but as I have grown older I have become incapable of enduring those emotional storms. I feel that life is hard enough, and the real world is horrific enough, that I don’t need extra-doses of suffering in my spare time.

But recently I have come to reconsider the wisdom of this self-protection policy. First, because there is only so much I can do to protect myself from pain of various kinds: as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, human goods are fragile and human happiness is inherently delicate. Developing a thick skin seems a wiser long-term strategy than the one I have been adopting. But, second, because there might actually be value in suffering. Emotions such as grief and jealousy, and sensations like pain are instrumentally valuable, since they play essential roles in our physical and psychological well-being, preventing injury, making us aversive to losing, and protective of, those with whom we share genes, and so forth.

Psychologist Randolph Nesse has coined the term “diagonal psychology” to designate the field that studies the benefits of negative emotions and the downside of positive ones. An example of such approach can be found in the work of June Gruber, a psychology professor at University of Colorado Boulder. In her TEDx talk The Dark Side of Happiness, she argues that too much positive affect can lead to decrease of creativity and to risky, harmful behaviors; that those who do not feel emotions such as grief and anger when it is appropriate are less emotionally adjusted; and that the pursuit of happiness itself can become a self-defeating objective. In the words of J. S. Mill: “Those only are happy… who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

In philosophy, a lot of attention has been traditionally and historically paid to the importance and nature of happiness. Recently, however, some philosophers have started thinking more about the value and role of pain. Some of these philosophers can be found in the interdisciplinary team that is behind the Value of Suffering Project. The aim of the project is to investigate the nature and role of suffering and affective experience in general. They even have a blog you might want to check out!

Earlier attempts at re-evaluating the importance of suffering can be found in the work some philosophers (such as Martha Nussbaum) have done on the importance from an ethical perspective of imaginatively engaging with fictions: when we see the world through the lens of a member of an oppressed minority, for instance, and we empathize with their pain, we might be able to see moral truths that were unavailable to us before.

Thinking about the experience of suffering in fictional engagement also suggests that suffering might have not only an instrumental value (as it plays an adaptive function at both the physical and psychological level), but also a non-instrumental one, in particular an epistemic one. Suffering is an unavoidable component of the human experience. If there is intrinsic value in knowing reality, independently from the use that we can do of that knowledge, then eschewing knowledge of a central aspect of reality is not a habit that a person should cultivate.

I might be ready for The Kite Runner.