A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors?
A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of repair, unlike in pre-Internet days when one could simply move location and build a new life away from the madding crowd. Generation Z is locked-in to a life of constant surveillance and judgement by their peers and those in authority.
As India correctly notes, the sufferings and misfortunes of earlier generations are largely absent. What are the under-25s of today left with? A life of psychological unease reflected in increasing mental ill-health. But greater emphasis on mental health generates an ever-greater demand for mental health services, and receiving mental health support can create life-long dependency. What is the role of suffering in all this? In India’s account, suffering seems to function as both cause and consequence. And if that is the case, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating, as with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
India takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of various critical stances on suffering, most notably that of Nietzsche, but also including contributions from Viktor Frankl and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. She argues that more rather than less suffering gives life meaning and purpose. But, given her claim that Generation Z are unique in their increased experience of suffering, and her conclusion that more suffering is needed for them to benefit from it, I have to ask: Why haven’t they done better thus far with the suffering they’ve already experienced?
Addressing this issue requires a thoughtful exploration of the relationships between suffering, meaning, and purpose in ways that India neglects to consider. Suffering comes in many forms: physical, psychological, existential, and so on. In motivational terms, suffering is best understood as a negative motivator—it tends not to produce any specific response other than that necessary to reduce or eliminate the suffering itself, and this may vary according to circumstances and individual resilience. Which means that caution is required when attributing any specifically beneficial effects to suffering, because the consequences may not be connected with the fact of suffering itself; they may be more reliant on the individual’s pre-existing potential for the development of positive responses.
India uses the term “suffering” to include a wide range of negative experiences: anxiety, depression, sadness, loneliness, nervousness, unhappiness, and of course old-fashioned misery. The common characteristic seems to be that the negative experience is considered intolerable because it is unacceptably distressing. But any such assessment is uniquely personal and to some extent unavoidably subjective. What one person finds inconvenient or discomforting might be experienced as intolerably oppressive and disabling by another. Responses to stressors are not only biologically hardwired but are also modified by learning. So a person might learn (albeit unconsciously) to find some experiences more stressful than might otherwise have been the case. Is Generation Z’s conditioned view of suffering significantly different from that of earlier generations? Are they more susceptible to assessing negative experiences as intolerable and/or disabling because they more easily suffer distress? I suspect this is the case.
The issue remains of what role suffering plays in life. India’s stance is that suffering gives us a sense of meaning and purpose which transcends mere happiness. She argues it prompts the self-reflection and self-growth necessary for personal development. She may be right. But the problem is that the relationship between suffering and self-development remains unclear. Is there a threshold below which suffering is ineffective at stimulating self-development? Above that threshold, is the relationship between suffering and self-development necessarily causal? How would we measure it in any case? How much suffering is enough? How would one assess whether it was all worth it? And is suffering really necessary at all?
I believe there are other ways of promoting self-reflection and self-growth and thus aiding self-development that do not involve suffering. These include prompting individuals to make helpful connections between what they do and how their lives turn out, and how much benefit or cost results and to whom. This can provide a means of understanding how one’s conduct affects others, and how what others do affects oneself.
These are moral issues that have nothing to do with suffering as such. But they do have a great deal to do with a person’s ability to understand and work with abstract concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong. The deeper meaning of these can be grasped only when one has already begun to be aware that what one does impacts how one’s life turns out, and how the lives of others turn out. Integral to this is the issue of how much personal responsibility one should assume for a given outcome and why. This generates a much richer sense of self-awareness than is possible when we only consider the effects of suffering and superficial gratifications.
In contrast, India presents her generation as addicted to instant gratification while afflicted by intolerable and disabling anxiety about the mere possibility of suffering. They do everything to avoid it, even though they are apparently the most unhappy generation since research into psychological wellbeing began. It’s difficult to see how further suffering will rectify this situation. But in her final paragraphs, while still hospitable to the idea of suffering-as-salvation, India hints at a more constructive solution, which has more to do with “strenuous, humbling self-development” and she advises her contemporaries to “switch off Netflix, abandon your excuses, and bear the unbearable.” This is the most worthwhile part of India’s essay, because her message has suddenly become one of resilience and self-reliance as a means of escaping self-defeating dependency. In other words, live in the real world and experience real challenges and hardships instead of living vicariously through manufactured entertainment.
The point that is not adequately made is that many members of Generation Z are existentially impoverished because they have been exposed throughout their lives to the relentless rhetoric of victimhood and moral perfectionism, exacerbated by the pressure-cooker atmosphere of social media. This encourages a distorted and passive-reactive understanding of the self, deficient in the attributes that might motivate an individual to become an independently active agent in their own self-development. Instead, it induces a reliance on the opinions of others, and a dependence on their approval (many years ago, this was characterised by social psychologists as being “other-directed” rather than “inner-directed”). Contemporary progressive ideology—like many radical ideologies—offers supposed remedies for the victims it manufactures, and yet these only trap them in their plight.
The result is to deprive susceptible individuals of the opportunity to take possession of and direct their own sense of self, to take charge of their lives, and thus develop their own conception of personal responsibility (to themselves and others). In so doing, they generate for themselves a sense of meaning and purpose that is unique to them and not a manufactured product of the society and culture in which they live. But instead, many members of Generation Z seem to see themselves as dependent upon others for their mental wellbeing rather than as the architects of their own future. One might say they exist to suffer, instead of seizing life and pursuing their dreams.
None of this has anything to do with suffering as such. But it does have a great deal to do with being pathologically self-absorbed and emotionally insecure, while lacking the motivation and initiative—and the courage—necessary to break out of the psychological prison of emotional dependency. Freya India almost arrives at this conclusion, but can’t quite bring herself to acknowledge the dreadful circumstances in which she and the other members of Generation Z live.
So the question I am left with is this: Does suffering provide meaning and purpose in life? My answer is: Only if you are unable to think of anything better. And that might be the worst suffering of all.
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