On Suffering

 Date posted: 30th August 2017



Definition and existence

Suffering is a state. My meaning of a state is the condition someone is in at a specific time. The state of suffering is one that someone experiences pain, distress or hardship.

States cannot exist without people. This means suffering requires a person for its condition. The absence of a person is the simultaneous absence of suffering. Not only does suffering require a person for its condition, the person must be alive to suffer. A person who is not alive cannot experience a state, and therefore cannot experience the condition of suffering.

To attempt to argue against the existence of suffering will be met with surprise. As long as I exist, I know the capacity to suffer exists. As long as other people exist, I know the capacity to suffer in other people exists. The only thing I require to know about the existence of suffering in others is that other people exist. I do not need to ask others if suffering exists. Their mere being affirms that suffering exists.

To assert my claim that suffering exists, I need to exist. In order to assert that suffering exists in other people, I need to know other people exist. “How do you know other people exist?” can be a debate for another time. For now, I am content settling with the answer: “When I look around I see other people existing.”

For other people to exist, it does not require my knowing of it. Something can exist without my knowledge of it. In other words: “If there are people who exist that I do not know of, this lack of knowledge does not deny their existence.”

The people who I know exist have the capacity to suffer. The people who I do not know exist have the capacity to suffer.


Suffering is not tangible. Suffering is not an object. You cannot touch suffering. You cannot measure your own suffering by a ruler or scale. You cannot measure another’s suffering. It is absurd to propose a scale of suffering by inspection such as: “Does someone suffer more if two of their children die as opposed to one?” or: “Does the suffering of a family member of a victim of a chemical weapon attack differ as opposed to being a victim of a shooting?”


I can imagine in what scenario someone would suffer without knowing that the person exists. I can rationalise the possible causes of suffering. I can separate the idea of suffering with someone who is suffering. If in my scenario I discover that such person is actually experiencing that very cause, I can conclude that the person is suffering. My conclusion is accurate based on my own experience or thought of it. My own conclusion of their suffering is not a true indicative of theirs.

Irrespective of your recognition of another’s suffering, suffering is the individuals alone. No one can suffer on your behalf. You cannot exchange suffering or hand over your suffering to someone else.

If the sufferer has lost a wife and a child to a chemical weapon attack, and the observer has also lost a wife and child to a chemical weapon attack, the observer can safely assume that the sufferer is suffering. No words need to be uttered to each other. It only requires the observer to know the sufferer’s cause.

There must be something to cause the state of suffering. Suffering cannot occur without any cause. The default state of a person is not suffering. Suffering cannot just happen unless something creates it.

In circumstances where you ask someone how they feel and they reply: “I am suffering” you must decide if you believe they are telling the truth. The person could say it in jest, the person could be lying. You cannot identify if someone is indeed suffering solely from the words they speak or write. I could write right now “I am suffering” when I am not. Furthermore, a person may say “I am not suffering” when they actually are.

The problem of recognition is not exclusive to suffering, but to all states.


You cannot help someone who is suffering if you do not know why they are suffering. It’s the same as saying “I need help!” and expecting others to help. How can someone help another if they do not know the cause of their cry for help?

Let us examine some examples of what I consider suffering to be:

  • A wife has witnessed her husband massacred by the hands of a terrorist group. I consider the wife to be suffering.
  • A soldier stepped on a land mine. His legs have been blown off. He is covered in blood lying down on the battlefield. I consider the soldier to be suffering.

Identifying the source of suffering does not alleviate suffering. No amount of soothing words can bring the massacred husband back. Suffering is the individuals alone. Sharing the experience of another’s suffering can help the sufferer. There are organisations which make it their mission to help those who are suffering, such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

I can only ascertain the definition of things for myself. I cannot separate my thoughts away from myself.

Is suffering present as a direct result of a cause? Or does a cause occur, and then I choose/interpret this as something, and then suffer?

There are two ways of looking at it:

1/ Cause = (state change) suffering

2/ Cause = choice of attribution/meaning(s) (state change) = suffering

In other words:

1/ Something happens to me, it changes my state and this makes me suffer.

2/ Something happens to me, I give this something a meaning (or multiple meanings), this meaning (or multiple meanings) changes my state and makes me suffer.

In other words, with a specific example:

1/ A chemical weapon attack on my city of residence kills all the people I am friends with, and it makes me suffer.

2/ A chemical weapon attack on my city of residence kills all the people I am friends with, this means I will no longer be able to see all of my friends again, this means that all of my friends’ families will lose their sons/daughters/fathers/mothers/husbands/wives, this means that I will never be able to share my lives with them, this means I cannot laugh/joke/enjoy my time with them again. This meaning changes my state and makes me suffer.

Knowing the existence of point 2 (a choice of attribution/meaning(s)) is important. We attribute meanings to things. We want to make sense of the world around us. By having meaning, we are not simply reactionary beings.

In this specific example, would there be a situation where I would not suffer by ascribing a different meaning to the chemical weapon attack?

1/ No, because I am simply reactionary to the event that causes my suffering.

2/ Yes, but I require to ascribe a different meaning to the same event.

How could you possibly re-interpret the death of your friends as a good thing? Doesn’t this example demonstrate we are reactionary beings?

I am concerned about this. Let’s look at the question “if something happens to you, and you experience the state of suffering, change your meaning and you will not suffer! It is your fault you are still suffering!”

A person would not willingly suffer unless there is a benefit of doing so. Suffering will not bring the dead back to life. A person is entitled to the state of suffering from a cause which is created by the meaning – it makes no sense to change the meaning of something that causes pain, distress or hardship. Why would someone want to change their tendency to suffer in situations that makes it so?

If we think the reverse, and I gave someone a life changing amount of money, their meaning of that cause could lead to excitement and happiness. Why would that person want to re-interpret that meaning as something other than excitement and happiness?

I would now like to clarify four stages of suffering, with the fourth stage being introduced.

  1. The cause (physical/mental)
  2. The meaning of the cause
  3. The consequential state change (to suffering) from the meaning of the cause
  4. The reaction to my suffering (known below as “as a result of” suffering)

In other words:

  1. Something happened.
  2. This means this.
  3. This meaning changes my state to suffering.
  4. As a result of my suffering, I believe/do this.

 “As a result of” suffering

The case of “as a result of” highlights an individual’s response to suffering. Either in what they do about their suffering, or in what they believe as a result of their suffering.

Let me use my specific example earlier:

  • A chemical weapon attack on my city of residence kills all the people I am friends with, this means x, it changes my state to experience suffering. I now have a choice of what to do with this suffering.

I can use it to seek justice for the victims and punish the perpetrators. I can embrace my suffering in eternal despair and believe the world is not fair. I could join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and seek to eradicate chemical weapons from this planet.  

The motivation to act in the face of, or in the pain of immense suffering to a positive outcome is an admirable trait.

“As a result of” suffering highlights two types of situations:

“As a result of” suffering in the affirmative. The victim has propelled themselves forward, finding a positive reaction to their experience. Positive reactions such as “As a result of suffering, I have been more determined and worked harder” or “As a result of suffering, I can better understand another’s experience of suffering.”

As a result of” suffering in the negative. The victim of suffering has spiralled downwards in a pit of despair. As a result of suffering, the person generated suicidal thoughts, depression, self-harm, anti-social behaviour, hopelessness, callousness towards people. As a result of suffering, the person has become beset by what caused it and/or their meaning to it. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote: “wie vie list aufzuleiden!” “How much suffering there is to get through!”

“As a result of” suffering in the negative can lead to suicide. Of the many reasons why people decide to commit suicide, one of them is the sense of hopelessness to control anything. The Scottish Poet James Thomson in The City of Dreadful Night wrote about suicide, affirming that it is our decision, and our choice, to commit suicide:

“O Brothers of sad lives! They are so brief; A few short years must bring us all relief: Can we not bear these years of laboring breath. But if you would not this poor life fulfil, Lo, you are free to end it when you will, Without the fear of waking after death...In all eternity I had one chance, One few years’ term of gracious human life, - The splendours of the intellect’s advance, The sweetness of the home with babes and wife; The social pleasures with their genial wit; The fascination of the worlds of art; The glories of the worlds of Nature lit By large imagination’s glowing heart; The rapture of mere being, full of health; The careless childhood and the ardent youth; The strenuous manhood winning various wealth, The reverend age serene with life’s long truth; … This chance was never offered me before; For me the infinite past is blank and dumb; This chance recurreth never, never-more; Blank, blank for me the infinite To-come.”

His melancholic writing I have added in this article, to give those suffering a perspective on their lives – you have one chance to live.

Comparison and interpretation

I remind you that suffering is a state. My meaning of a state is the condition someone is in at a specific time. The state of suffering is one that someone experiences pain, distress or hardship.

Two people experience the same cause. One person experiences suffering, the other person does not. Is that possible?

The above statement separates “cause of suffering” with “cause” and “suffering” as two separate entities. “Cause of suffering” assumes there are always specific causes of suffering that applies to all. Separating cause from suffering means one cause can cause suffering in one person, but not in another.

Let us think of this in an example:

  • An overweight person suffers from being overweight.

In this example, the cause of suffering arises from being overweight. It is possible that Person A does suffer from being overweight. It possible that Person B does not suffer from being overweight. Same cause, different meaning to the cause. Person C can feel satisfied about being overweight, Person D can feel unhappy (but not suffer) from being overweight. Person E can be fed up (but not suffer) from being overweight. There can different meanings to the same cause.

Let us take this example further:

  • An overweight person suffers from being overweight. He decides to do something about it. He joins a gym and exercises daily. He disciplines his food choices and intake. He gets more sleep. He says “I suffered daily to achieve the body of my dreams”.

Is this really suffering? According to the definition of suffering, it is a person that experiences pain, distress or hardship. So what did the overweight person suffer from? What caused it, and what is the suffering in this?

Losing weight and sculpting the body involves pushing against great resistance in order for muscles to grow and fat to burn. So, the suffering in this is experiencing great resistance?

Two comments here. A fitness enthusiast may not view the act of pushing against great resistance as suffering. He may view it as an enjoyable activity to grow/be healthy/get stronger. Secondly, is the purpose of a gym to make people suffer? I don’t see protests at leisure centres with activists chanting: “why are you making people suffer!?”

A fitness enthusiast may instead say, just like the overweight person, “I knowingly suffer to get the body of my dreams/to get healthy/to grow”. This means that it is possible to intentionally suffer for a greater meaning, or greater outcome, or positive outcome.

But are we really putting suffering of going to the gym side by side with victims of chemical weapon attacks, or are we simply exposing different levels, or different versions, or different interpretations of suffering?

I believe it wrong to say “The victim of a chemical weapon attack suffers to the same degree as a person who suffers at the gym to get a fit body.”

In the first instance, the cause of suffering was unintentional. In the second instance, the cause of suffering was intentional.

Physical and mental suffering

Physical suffering comes into two parts:

Part 1: Unintentional physical suffering

Unintentional physical suffering means suffering from physical bodily harm by someone or something.

I use the word unintended to mean the person in question who is suffering did not intend or set out to suffer. Existing leaves us vulnerable to suffering, irrespective of our desire to avoid suffering.

A person will experience physical suffering if someone or something is causing them to physically suffer. It includes being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, blown up, whipped, cut up, drugged, gassed, hung, attacked with chemicals. It means body parts are damaged, bruised, cut, twisted, dismembered, pulled out, snapped, burnt.  

Unintentional physical suffering is the clearest cut, and most conscience-shocking form of suffering. Actual examples of this form of suffering are the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910’s, the suffering of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, the suffering of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus in Rwanda in the 1990’s. The murder of innocent victims, and the suffering that ensued from it, is what led former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to say “never again” in the failing of a civilian population from genocide or mass slaughter. The Rome Statute of 1998 that established the International Criminal Court states: “women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity, recognising that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world.” 

The first sentences of the United Nations Charter outlining the purpose of the United Nations states: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetimes has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…”

Unintentional physical suffering does not only happen on an international scale. Any physical suffering that is unintentional falls into this category of suffering. It can be a soldier who stepped on a land mine which explodes and blows off his/her legs. It can be the suffering of a victim of an acid attack to the face, scarring their face for life. It can be a person who is stabbed multiple times by an attacker.

Unintentional physical suffering is not only caused by someone committing a crime. It can arise out of an illness. Someone who is unintentionally wounded, ill, injured or sick fall into this category.

A cancer patient at a hospital unintentionally suffers physically (the patient and those that feel affection for the patient are also likely to suffer mentally- we will get to this part later).

I want to give an example of a rebuttal to the position of unintentional physical suffering. I want to take the soldier stepping on a land mine as an example:

  • Unintentional physical suffering can be a soldier who stepped on a land mine which explodes and blows off his/her legs, leaving him/her wounded on the battlefield with blood drenched on his/her uniform. It is so as it was not his/her intention to physically suffer.

Argument against unintentional physical suffering:

  1. It was the soldier’s decision to be a soldier. He/she enrolled knowingly that he/she may be deployed in a hostile environment where risks to life occur.
  2. It was the soldier’s decision to step into that position where a land mine is located.
  3. It was the soldier’s choice to go to war.

Response to the argument in support of unintentional physical suffering:

  1. To ask any soldier “why do you want to be a soldier?” I am sure will never be met with the reply “because I intend to suffer”. A soldier would know the risks of going into a battlefield, but they do not set out to suffer. The awareness of suffering can be present, but the intention to suffer is not present.
  2. The soldier stepped in the position of a landmine, that step can be intentional, but that step was not intended to blow off his/her legs. The result of that step was unintentional. Had the soldier known where the land mine was located, the soldier would not have stepped in that position. The physical suffering remains unintentional.
  3. It is not a soldier’s decision whether or not to go to war. The decision to go to war is made by leaders of countries. How leaders of countries make this decision is a question for another article.

Part 2: Intentional physical suffering

Firstly, is there really such a thing as intentional physical suffering? Can you really suffer intentionally?

Intentional physical suffering means the suffering from physical bodily harm by yourself, or an object to use with the intention of harming yourself. Intentional physical suffering is suffering that arises out of your own intention to suffer.

Can you give us some examples of this, dear writer?

A person who self-harms is a form of intentional physical suffering, it could be by way of cutting, biting, burning, poisoning themselves, or over/under eating, overdosing, pulling their hair out, picking and scratching their own skin. 

Self-harm is considered a mental health problem. The sufferer requires assistance and support.

Mental suffering

Part 1: Unintentional mental suffering

Unintentional mental suffering means suffering unintentionally from psychological causes, or a physical cause that causes psychological suffering.

Living in peace in a civilised society means the vulnerability to physical suffering is less pervasive. Mental suffering thrives in any condition under any society. Across a lifetime my view is this: someone is more likely to experience mental suffering than physical suffering.

Examples of mental suffering include: the death/illness of a family member, the divorce/breakup of someone you feel close affection for, postnatal depression, the feeling of hopelessness through hardship/poverty, psychological torture.

Part 2: Intentional mental suffering

Intentional mental suffering means suffering intentionally from psychological causes, or a physical cause that intentionally causes mental suffering.

I do not see any reason why someone would intentionally mentally suffer. I do not see how it is possible. If it is possible: 1. Why would someone want to know how to do it? 2. How would it be classified as mentally suffering?

Let me attempt to find examples:

  • Voluntarily undergo a psychological training exercise with the intention to suffer mentally.

Not likely. People voluntarily undergo a psychological training exercise with the intention to either: 1. Make money 2. Pass a test (such as for military purposes).

  • Voluntarily take drugs with the intention to damage yourself psychologically.

I do not know a person, and cannot conceive of a person who would do that, unless they have mental health issues.

  • Intentionally suffer physically in order to trigger mental suffering.

Again, I cannot conceive of a person who would do that, unless they have mental health issues.

Suffering: me versus others

To witness the death of a person with his wife beside him in tears, and to say to this: “I, as the observer, do not know for sure that the wife is suffering as I am not the wife” or “The wife might be lying, the wife might be acting, I do not know” is quite shameful. I have the capacity to know what causes suffering without having to be inside another person’s mind. If I see what constitutes as suffering in others, I can conclude that the person is suffering. My conclusion is accurate based on my own experience or thought of it. However, my conclusion can never be a true indicative of theirs.

  • Person A feels affection for Person B. Person B dies. Person A experiences suffering.

Can I conclude that Person A is suffering? No, because I do not know if Person A is aware of Person B’s death.

  • Person A feels affection for Person B. Person B dies. Person A is aware of Person B’s death. Person A experiences suffering.

Can I conclude that Person A is suffering? Yes I can, despite never being able to be inside the mind of another. Would there be a circumstance where Person A would not suffer?

  • Person B is terminally ill, and has been for a long time. Person A has been taking care of Person B (whom he feels great affection for). Person B’s death is expected. Person A sorted all the finances, property and life of Person B with consent of Person B. Person B died. Person A is aware of Person B’s death. As the death was expected, Person A does not suffer.

This suggests someone ceases to suffer with the expectation of suffering. Spinoza in Ethics wrote: “emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

Can suffering really lessen, pause or even cease when suffering is expected?

What causes suffering?

A civilised person does not go out of their way to attract suffering. There is no inherent positive characteristic of suffering. Any positive characteristic of suffering in and of itself ceases to be defined as suffering. This is not to discredit the notion of a positive characteristic arising as a result of suffering.

The mere factor of existing invites the possibility to suffer. To simply exist leaves a person vulnerable to suffering. Unless suffering from a physical or mental condition that affects the ability to suffer, I cannot think of an exception to the following statement “all people are vulnerable to suffering.”

Does someone deserve to suffer?

Abdul Hameed al Yousef, the Syrian who lost his twin babies and wife to a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun does not deserve to suffer. The families of the victims of the Manchester attack do not deserve to suffer.

I cannot think of an exception to the following statement “all people do not deserve to suffer”. 

Rebuttal question: “What about criminals? They deserve to suffer for what they have done!”

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to deliver justice by convicting and punishing the guilty and helping them to stop offending while protecting the innocent.[1]

Punishment means the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence. The purpose of punishment is deterrence (frightening the defendant or public), incapacitation (removing the defendant from society), rehabilitation (altering the defendant’s behaviour), retribution (removing the desire for personal avengement against the defendant) and restitution (punishing the defendant financially).[2]

Do convicted criminals deserve to be punished? Yes. Do convicted criminals deserve to suffer? No.

It sounds straightforward until the question arises: by punishing them, are you making them suffer?

I will reply with looking at the logic of four sentences:

1. People who are punished don’t suffer.

False. Some people do.

2. People who are punished suffer.

Partially true, some people do and some people do not.

3. People who suffer are punished.

False, suffering is not a punishment.

4. People who suffer are not punished.

True. Suffering carries a different meaning to punishment.

Suffering and punishing is not the same thing. A person might suffer if they are punished. A person who suffers must not and cannot be punished for suffering.

Necessity of suffering

Do you know what will make you suffer? Most people would not ever ask themselves this question. Suffering will only be dealt with when it presents itself. The state of suffering only happens when meaning is called upon to interpret a cause.

Is it necessary to suffer to exist? No. Not suffering does not threaten existence.

Is it good to suffer? No.

Can we take a positive meaning from suffering? Yes.

Can we take a negative meaning from suffering? Yes.

There are people who might say “Suffering has driven me to the success I am today”. Suffering can compel ourselves to act.

To delete the capacity to suffer gives us one less reason to act. The person who says “suffering has driven me to act” would have to replace it with another state: “unhappiness has driven me to act”. Whether unhappiness works to the same effect, quite to the driving force as the severity of suffering remains an unanswered question unless suffering is eradicated.

Final words

You don’t get a reward for suffering. If someone is suffering, I do not envy their suffering.

You can be admired for how you deal with suffering.

Suffering has the ability to show human potential at its best, turning tragedy into achievement.






[1] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/purpose-criminal-justice-system

[2] https://open.lib.umn.edu/criminallaw/chapter/1-5-the-purposes-of-punishment/