Suffering as a Virtue_Diksha Narang

What is the etymology of ‘happiness’? Happiness comes from the word ‘hap’ meaning chance or fortune. Etymologically then, happiness is something that is contingent to our luck. But have ideas of happiness changed considerably? Sara Ahmed (2010) argues that the modern world constructs happiness as a feeling that we try to achieve through our conscious actions. We must strive towards happiness in a lifelong pursuit. Failing to be happy is considered a failure in our choices rather than plain bad luck. The onus is on us, to ‘seize the day’, ‘carpe diem’ and live a life full of smiling exchanges. Happiness is made into an activity while suffering is relegated to a passivity.

The entire discourse of agency, free-will and resistance has transformed a world of accidents, chances and serendipities into a world of responsibility. Each free individual is imbued with an agency – an agency to choose to be happy and to be responsible for their actions. The modern, secular world invites us to a world of agency where there are sovereign, autonomous beings who roam the streets in their liberated manner. But why must we all be agentic? CJ Fuller (2004) in his understanding of misfortune in popular Hindu religion writes of the various possible causes of misfortune ranging from the stars not aligning to the evil eye of another. Let us not reduce the entire cosmology of misfortune and suffering to settled arguments in favour of ‘agency’. There are a range of possible actors in the cosmos – stars, planets, gods, goddesses, animals, humans and lastly, reified sociological concepts such as structure. Suffering and misfortune may be caused by a diversity of beings in this imagination.

But is there a problem in this ‘pursuit of happiness’? Why should suffering be avoided like the plague?  Are there any merits and possible, virtues of suffering? I am not attempting to valorise suffering but balance the contemporary obsession with happiness. The anthropologist, CJ Throop (2015) studied the Yapese community of Micronesia. Through his interviews with the members of the community, he discovered that they shared an ambivalence even, discomfort towards happiness. Rather, they considered suffering as virtuous. Happiness to them, is self-serving because it’s goal is one’s own good. They complained that happiness was something transitory. Suffering on the other hand, connected one with others while happiness was an individual act. Suffering made one recognize the suffering of the community of the past and the possibility of unwanted future suffering. Happiness to them, then is like having blinders on while suffering is attunement to the workings of the world. How can one be happy when others are suffering?

Suffering creates moral relations. Buddha is said to have seen a tigress with her cubs. The tigress and her cubs were in the depths of starvation. The tigress looked at the cubs as her food while the cubs looked at the tigress with similar intentions. Buddha wanted to end this cycle of suffering by offering his own body to the tigress and her cubs. In other words, Buddha wanted to par-take in the suffering of others. One can contrast this with modern medicine. The doctor attempts to cure the patient while keeping a distance from the patient’s pain and suffering. Perhaps, this is why modern medicine is often stuck with the predicament of whether or not the patient’s pain is real or he is a hypochondriac. They want to establish the reality of what they consider as a private experience. Medicine wants to fix pain inside the person without realizing that pain and suffering exist within a range of moral relations. Our bonds with others are often, premised on how much we feel they too experience our pain.

Suffering can also be productive. There is a Christian idea that suffering only comes to those who have guilt. (Asad, 2000) One suffers because one is guilty of having committed a crime. Suffering is then, reduced to a punishment. But there are histories of suffering which are transformative rather than a deductive. Buddha put his body through great ordeals in order to attain nirvana. There are discursive traditions of ascetics who suffer through denial, discipline and hard work in order to attain liberation.

Suffering is then in excess of the sociological categories that we use in our understanding. Structure and agency do not fully capture the moral and ethical phenomena of suffering. Neither do philosophical debates of free-will and determinism. As Talal Asad (2000) writes, “suffering was not merely a feature of an imperfect world, but an exercise of virtue.” Through a consideration of suffering as a virtuous act, I seek to disconnect the idea that suffering is always something that is done on an object. I want to invite others to think about the potential virtues of suffering.

  • 1) Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Duke University Press.
  • 2) Asad, Talal. “Agency and pain: an exploration.” Culture and religion1 (2000): 29-60.
  • 3) Fuller, Christopher John. The camphor flame: Popular Hinduism and society in India. Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • 4) Throop, C. Jason. “Ambivalent happiness and virtuous suffering.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory3 (2015): 45-68.

Diksha Narang (Reading for MPhil/PhD in Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi, India)

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