Can’t Have the Sweet Without the Bitter

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 6, 2012 · 82 comments

in A Man's Life

I’m a big fan of the classic 1960s-era television show, The Twilight Zone. Even when you can see the episodes’ famous twists coming a mile away, they’re still enjoyable to watch, as the show managed to niftily combine elements of science-fiction, suspense, psychological thrills…and even a little social commentary and abstract philosophy.

One of my favorite episodes is #28: “A Nice Place to Visit.” You can stream it for free from Amazon (if you’re an Amazon Prime member), or watch it with foreign language subtitles in the YouTube clip below:

I highly encourage you to watch the episode before you read the rest of the article, but if you choose not to, here’s a summary:

The episode opens with one Rocky Valentine, lifelong troublemaker and tough guy, robbing a pawn shop after killing the night watchman. The police arrive and open fire on Rocky as he tries to get away. Rocky returns fire and the officers pump him full of lead. He awakens to find himself unharmed, with a kindly Colonel Sanders-esque man by his side. The older gentleman introduces himself as Pip, and informs Rocky that he knows everything about him, and that as his guide, he is devoted to giving Rocky everything he wants, whatever that might be. Rocky, not yet realizing he is dead, is at first quite wary, but as Pip sets him up in a posh apartment and produces a sharp wardrobe, wads of cash, and beautiful dames seemingly out of thin air, Rocky is dazzled and giddy. Anything he desires becomes his: whenever he gambles, he wins on every bet; when he fills up the ash trays in his hot rod, he simply orders up another.

Not believing his good fortune, Rocky keeps asking Pip: “What’s the pitch, the catch, the gimmick?” Pip finally reveals that Rocky is dead and is alone in a private domain set up just for him. Looking around at his wish-fulfillment-world, Rocky concludes that he therefore must be in Heaven. Given the spotty record of his mortal life, he’s not sure how he got past the pearly gates, but he plans to enjoy it to the fullest and revels in every pleasure he can dream up.

Yet after a month, Rocky feels crazily restless and bored out of his mind. The thrill of winning at every hand has become stale; he’s tired of the women who dote on him. Rocky figures his unhappiness stems from not fitting in in Heaven. “I don’t belong in heaven. I want to go to the other place,” he tells Pip. “Heaven?!” Pip exclaims. “Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!” Cue the maniacal laughter.

Can’t Have the Bitter Without the Sweet

The message of “A Nice Place to Visit” is that while we might think that a world without risk or challenge, without pain or heartache, a world where our every wish is fulfilled would be heaven and bring us boundless joy, it would, in fact, make us absolutely miserable and be a certain kind of hell. Without risk there can be no satisfaction in the reward. Without misery there can be no joy. Without the bitter there can be no sweet.

Without opposition in all things, there would be no contrast in our experiences, and without contrast with something else, a thing would essentially cease to exist; for example the fish does not understand what water feels like, or that it even lives in something called “water,” for it is completely enveloped in it.  But a fish that is scooped out in a net, and then placed back in the water, does then gain the knowledge of what water is, and how exquisite it feels to be surrounded by it.

Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone) was of course not the first to expound on this bitter-sweet concept–it has been explored by prophets and philosophers for thousands of years.

For example in the first century AD, the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca penned the following dialogue, arguing that not only was true happiness impossible without hardships, but that virtue, and thus real greatness, was too:

“Prosperity comes to the mob, and to low-minded men as well as to great ones; but it is the privilege of great men alone to send under the yoke the disasters and terrors of mortal life: whereas to be always prosperous, and to pass through life without a twinge of mental distress, is to remain ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how am I to know it, if fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your virtue?

You have entered the arena of the Olympic games, but no one else has done so: you have the crown, but not the victory: I do not congratulate you as I would a brave man, but as one who has obtained a consulship or praetorship. You have gained dignity. I may say the same of a good man, if troublesome circumstances have never given him a single opportunity of displaying the strength of his mind. I think you unhappy because you never have been unhappy: you have passed through your life without meeting an antagonist: no one will know your powers, not even you yourself.

For a man cannot know himself without a trial: no one ever learnt what he could do without putting himself to the test; for which reason many have of their own free will exposed themselves to misfortunes which no longer came in their way, and have sought for an opportunity of making their virtue, which otherwise would have been lost in darkness, shine before the world. Great men, I say, often rejoice at crosses of fortune just as brave soldiers do at wars. I remember to have heard Triumphus, who was a gladiator in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, complaining about the scarcity of prizes. “What a glorious time,” said he, “is past.”

Valour is greedy of danger, and thinks only of whither it strives to go, not of what it will suffer, since even what it will suffer is part of its glory. Soldiers pride themselves on their wounds, they joyously display their blood flowing over their breastplate. Though those who return unwounded from battle may have done as bravely, yet he who returns wounded is more admired…

Do not, I beg you, dread those things which the immortal gods apply to our minds like spurs: misfortune is virtue’s opportunity. Those men may justly be called unhappy who are stupified with excess of enjoyment, whom sluggish contentment keeps as it were becalmed in a quiet sea: whatever befalls them will come strange to them. Misfortunes press hardest on those who are unacquainted with them: the yoke feels heavy to the tender neck. The recruit turns pale at the thought of a wound: the veteran, who knows that he has often won the victory after losing blood, looks boldly at his own flowing gore…

There can be no easy proof of virtue. Fortune lashes and mangles us: well, let us endure it: it is not cruelty, it is a struggle, in which the oftener we engage the braver we shall become. The strongest part of the body is that which is exercised by the most frequent use: we must entrust ourselves to fortune to be hardened by her against herself: by degrees she will make us a match for herself. Familiarity with danger leads us to despise it. Thus the bodies of sailors are hardened by endurance of the sea, and the hands of farmers by work; the arms of soldiers are powerful to hurl darts, the legs of runners are active: that part of each man which he exercises is the strongest…

No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong; for it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely: those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle: and so it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much amidst alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it ill.”

The above represents one of my favorite passages in ancient philosophy. Not only because it so powerfully explains the bitter-sweet concept, but because it also offers an answer to one of the questions theists have struggled with for millennia: “Why does God allow suffering in the world?” or “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”

It is often argued that a loving God would not allow His children to suffer. But, if you subscribe to Seneca’s position that without hardships man can be neither happy nor virtuous, and if you believe that God desires his children to be both righteous and joyful, the question then becomes, “How could a loving God not allow suffering in the world?”

And yet an embrace of the bitter-sweet concept does not only bring meaning to theists, but also imparts purpose to the atheist who has made self-actualization his life’s goal. Through it he can come to see hardships as the classrooms of self-knowledge, opportunities to prove himself and grow as a man, vital training on the path to becoming superhuman.

Finding Meaning in Suffering

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Of course when we’re in the midst of a trial and the trough of heartache, it is difficult to joyously glory in the figurative blood flowing over our breastplates. But when challenges do come, an embrace of the bitter-sweet concept can at least keep you from cursing God or sliding into an existential funk. You can find meaning in your suffering when you understand that there can be no pleasure without pain, and come to view your hardships as tests–opportunities to prove your mettle; it is easy to live with virtue and dignity in good times, but how will you act when the storms come? Will you fall apart or hold steady?

And even if the knowledge that you cannot have the sweet without the bitter doesn’t prevent you from slipping into despair during your darkest hour, it can allow you to find meaning in your suffering once the passage of time dissipates your anger and grief and gives you the distance necessary to ponder the ways in which the hardship has strengthened you, and left you better prepared to meet your next challenge. But only, of course, if you let it.


{ 82 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris May 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm

It doesn’t appear to be free to stream on Amazon unless you’re an Amazon Prime customer.

2 Boris May 6, 2012 at 8:31 pm

It’s worth being an Amazon Prime customer especially if you have a video streaming device like Roku.

3 Chime May 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Once we hit a point in human history in which 9 million children under five don’t die every year, I might reconsider my lack of belief in a god. The practice of defending tragedy with philosophy is sickening, especially when the purpose is to reaffirm the existence of a loving god. On the other hand, I experience no cognitive dissonance regarding the issue of human suffering because I know that suffering is a part of life, god or not.

4 Seb May 6, 2012 at 9:09 pm

amazing. best post ever by aom.

5 JJ May 6, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Chime, that was an absolutely beautiful comment, especially when I read the article an ad for Christian Mingle was right there. God wants you to find his match? What about the billions of people before this website?

God has nothing to do with your suffering to build your character. Putting a name on the source of the suffering is a way to cope, not deal and succeed in the world.

6 Lee May 6, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Amazing post.

The death of billions of children is sad, but it doesn’t dampen my faith in God one iota. Just like this post says I believe God wants me to be happy and virtuous, and that’s not possible in a world without sickness and tragedy. People say, well God could stop the children from dying…but then where would God draw the line? Should he prevent things like 9/11? Car accidents? All cancer? Some cancer? Pretty soon, you’d have God stepping in to stop all suffering, and then you’d wind up with a hell like Rocky’s.

I think God steps in occasionally to keep the world and individuals on His path, but mostly lets the world run as it does. It hurts in the short-term but is best for us in the long-term.

Thanks AoM.

7 Sean May 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Best post I have ever read on AOM, and that’s saying a lot considering the consistent quality of material offered here.

8 Mark May 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Rocky Valentine shares a strange resemblance to Brett McKay ???

Great post….. Love the Twilight Zone tie in,

9 Liam May 6, 2012 at 10:51 pm

This is a remarkable post. And all-too timely for me, currently going to through one of those most difficult periods of my life to date. Seneca’s words absolutely resonated inside my mind.

And, “existential funk” made me smile. It’s a… er, funky… label for where I’ve been lately.

Many thanks for some much needed perspective.

10 Tony V May 6, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Great article and a great episode of twilight zone. I don’t have to see it again I remember it. It’s one of my favorites. I never thought of the bitter sweet dynamic as a reason why God allows suffering but it makes sense. Thank you for the insight.

11 jr May 6, 2012 at 11:48 pm

I agree with all the other comments that this is one of, if not the best article from AoM to date. I am curious to those who post before me as they us this opportunity to verify their disbelief in God. The premise behind the Christian religion is faith. Not having that, you will loose belief. Either way you choose to stand in religion, its behind the actual point of the article. This article applies to all men; take it for what it is. However, Don’t go after the authors beliefs and how he applies it to his life.

12 Rafeeq May 6, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Absolutely amazing post, and this topic is something that most individuals should consider pondering.
God Bless the hard work that is put into this site. Many thanks

13 Ellis Atwood May 7, 2012 at 12:12 am

Awesome post! @Chime, I’m sorry if any of your interactions with Christians have given you the impression that just because we believe suffering is a part of life, we don’t do everything in our power to alleviate it. Rather, we believe that as we come understand God’s love for us, it drives us to do everything we can to help others feel that love through our actions. While suffering is a natural part of life, we want to be a band of brothers, all doing our part to help others make it through.

14 Miguel May 7, 2012 at 12:14 am

Don’t draw a line between not having faith and losing belief.
Faith is, as used by you, a subset of belief; belief in that which has no evidence. You can have belief without faith, but to say that without faith you will lose belief is wrong.

That said, great post.

15 Giovanni May 7, 2012 at 12:18 am

This was another great article. I have have to compliment AOM on realizing the diversity of opinions and creating artilcles that reflect this.

16 Hutch May 7, 2012 at 12:51 am

Great post, motivated me to suffer through studying for my final exams.
On the God issue, death and disease are a consequence of sin. We couldn’t be perfect, so we don’t get to live in a perfect world.

17 Hank May 7, 2012 at 1:09 am

The brokenness of this world is not something to blame a god for. The brokenness of this world is an opportunity for men to step up and take action. Now relating to the post, how would we know what is good, right and just without this brokenness. Men do not blame, men take action.

18 Easton May 7, 2012 at 1:56 am

Outstanding AoM post. Probably the best ever.

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” Jacob

BTW. Most of the TZ episodes are streamable on Netflix as well.

19 Joshua May 7, 2012 at 2:20 am

Greater words have but once been written.

20 Phil May 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

“Men do not blame, men take action.”
Well said Hank, thank you. I have to agree with the sentiment expressed here as this is one of the best articles on AOM I’ve had the pleasure to read and share with my sons.

21 Jesse May 7, 2012 at 8:32 am

I love your site and this is a really interesting post! I love The Twilight Zone and it makes a good point, we do need conflict in order to have contrast – I think it is human nature to look at life through this lens and appreciate what we have in contrast to what we don’t. I do think it is taking it too far and jumping to a conclusion when you say this explains why god allows evil in the world. Does the fish need to die to appreciate life? Does an omnibenevolent god allow evil so we can appreciate life? Then you are saying evil isn’t really evil and I don’t think I can condone that. I would like to think that if an omnibenevolent god existed then he/she could find a way to provide contrast without aids/genocide/9-11/famine etc.

22 Abe May 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

It’s worth pointing out that Seneca was not a Christian. The Stoic philosophy is one that is useful and practical even to the atheist; providing you accept the axiom that the universe is rational. The greatest strength of Stoicism is its basis in reason.

If you want to see Seneca’s advice above placed into practice, look at the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a committed Stoic and one of Rome’s last great emperors. The writing above provides the answer to how a man, an emporer, was able to have anything he wanted, and wield nearly unlimited power, without being corrupted by it.

23 james Fruth May 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

I am a huge fan of the Twilight Zone and Sterling himself, and this is my favorite episode. Anytime I think to myself how life would be better if I had everything I wanted, I remember this episode and A huge weight always lifts off of me. It’s amazing how much a 22 minute episode of a black and white tv show that was made over 40 years ago can effect you today.

24 Aaron May 7, 2012 at 10:14 am

What a great article.

25 Aaron May 7, 2012 at 10:35 am

The statement: There is suffering in the world, therefore God does not exist.

That must also mean: Because Frodo suffered on his way to Mount Doom and thousands of innocents were killed in a war, Tolkien must not exist.

That is non-logic and there are better arguments for atheism than that, my friend.

26 Jake May 7, 2012 at 11:17 am

Not only does suffering produce happiness but Paul in Romans says it can produce hope….which I know is very similar to happiness.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

27 Stephen May 7, 2012 at 11:17 am

My impression of the “life would be boring if it was all good” argument is that it tends to come from people whose life is predominately good. You tend to not find the recently bereaved or cancer afflicted or starving using it.

You have to have been in such a position of success at some point that you can start to think “what if *this* continues forever?”

28 Richard May 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

In the Twilight Zone episode Valentine’s every desire is instantly met, there is no adversity, sickness, hunger or danger, everything is perfect—this, it is finally revealed, is hell. And yet isn’t that exactly the promise made to Christians in the afterlife?
Ockham’s Razor (or the scientific principal of parsimony) requires that given two equally reasonable explanations, the simpler should prevail, or that given a single explanation, unnecessary elements should be eliminated. In Darwinian evolution organisms must contend with and overcome all adversity or their genes are not passed on—no god is required.

29 Dave May 7, 2012 at 11:51 am

@Aaron I think a more accurate phrasing would be “There is suffering in the world, therefore a god who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent does not exist.” Unless you are ascribing both of those qualities to Tolkein, and saying that the characters in Middle Earth have real subjective experience, then the analogy does not hold.

I would also add that it is not enough to say that God might allow some suffering. If you want to justify God you must explain extreme suffering. A skeletal child in Africa is not strengthened by starving slowly to death. Neither is an infant that lives for a mere three months of agony in a NICU. I’m not saying I know where an all loving God would draw the line, but I think it’s clear that our world has more suffering than what would be required just to build character.

30 Rob Dyson May 7, 2012 at 11:56 am

Richard: Interesting point, but the difference between Valentine’s hell and the Christians heaven is quite different. Heaven isn’t a satisfying of every fleshly need. The flesh isn’t in need of satisfying at that point. Second, contrary to popularly-held belief – evolution is not scientifically defensible. Third, I agree with Hutch – sin entered into, and corrupted everything. C.S. Lewis does a nice treatment of the philosophical question about how can God be both good and all-powerful in his book The Problem of Pain.

31 Jovica Vuković May 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Those are Croatian subtitles. I like your articles. Greetings from Rovinj in Croatia :)

32 Brian Madison May 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Dear Brett and Kate,
I cannot find the words to tell you how much I appreciate your site “The Art of Manliness”.
I wrote before to tell you I have 3 boys who are all teenagers. I am 47 years old and wish I would have had a blog like yours to review every day. Your site has been a topic of discussion around our dinner table. Thank you for all the hard work you put into your site.
Brian Madison

33 Dave May 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I want to add to my previous comment that I loved this article, I am not in any way bothered by the inclusion of a theist perspective, and I am especially appreciative that the article was inclusive to atheists. Great job, Brett and Kate, as always.

34 LL May 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm

I don’t think the idea here is that all suffering creates character. For the starving children in Africa, that’s not true certainly. I think the idea is that in order to make happiness and character possible, God has to open the door to suffering. Once you open the door, many negative effects come through too. But it’s better to have the door open than closed.

Btw, I’m really impressed by the caliber of the discussion here. Reading the post, I thought, well this could be controversial, but even people disagreeing have done so in an intelligent way. I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion a lot. A lot different than most websites I visit….

35 Mohammad Aman May 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Just-in-time motivation. I was complaining about the things in my life. Nothing is in place. This has provided me with the much needed boost. All praise be to Allah. May Allah reward the author of this article.

36 Magno May 7, 2012 at 1:38 pm

our happiness is directly proportional to our sufferings

37 Ryan May 7, 2012 at 1:51 pm

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

38 Jason Clark May 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm

A good life requires a heavy amount of Grit. Consider that heaven has pain as well. All growth has pain attached to it. Pain of the body, mind, and soul. I do not view heaven as a place to rest from all labors. I view heaven as a University to further growth. I view God as one who loves me enough to hurt me. Like a surgan who must inflict pain to save the patient. I have lead a very painful life. I was a Marine, I was a Flight Attendant, I was in poverty, I have spent countless sleepless nights in study to earn two degrees. I have delt with death and loss of jobs and status. Yet I can still know that all these things shall give me experience. I can look philophers, prophets, and statesman in the eye and they can look me in the eye. Life takes Grit and the next life will take the same…Grit!

39 Aaron May 7, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I still must disagree. When a writer pens a story, he is the god of that story. He controls everything; he’s omnipotent. He decides what happens on the page and what will happen on the next three hundred pages. Ascribing Tolkien the qualities of omnipotence and omnibenevolence is alright, seeing as those qualities are restricted to Middle Earth. The analogy still stands as just that: an analogy, not an equivocation.

Also, suffering is part of life, extreme or not, and since definitions of extreme are subjective, an image of starving African children is technically unfounded. Those who believe in God still start missions to feed the hungry and care for the sick. But if it were God who caused the sickness, why would they work against him?

Because they don’t believe that God is causing suffering for his own amusement. It’s human nature that causes starvation, slavery, war, etc. not God. You have free will and you choose to do good, but some don’t take that path. There is evil in the world, the effects of which ripple for generations. It’s my present conclusion that suffering is caused by the ripple effect of humanity’s sins, not God.

All that said, I think we’re both used to having inflammatory comments thrown at us from those who disagree with us. I’ve had a lot of atheists call me an idiot and things of that nature and verbally abuse me just for believing these things and asking questions about the beliefs of those who don’t. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of very angry Christians come at you in much the same way. I’m very glad we can be gentlemen about this and I’m sure you agree.

I don’t think this is a debate that will ever have a victor. Many debates are that way. Not everything has an on and off switch. We will have to agree to disagree and go on in that way.

Best wishes.

40 Ryan May 7, 2012 at 2:12 pm

@Rob Dyson, evolution is not scientifically defensible? Okay. What about evidence of evolution reproduced in the lab or documented in nature, such as two strains of fruit flies losing the ability to interbreed and produce fertile offspring in the lab over a 4-year span … i.e. they became two new species. (An easily repeated experiment) Or the new plant species (a type of firewood), created by a doubling of the chromosome count from the original stock (Mosquin, 1967). Or the multiple species of the house mouse unique to the Faeroe Islands that occurred within 250 years of introduction of a foundation species on the island. Or formation of 5 new species of cichlid fishes that have formed in a single lake within 4,000 years of introduction of a parent species. What about fossil evidence?(So much to list). Genetic evidence – E.g. the fact that humans have a huge number of genes (as much as 96%) in common with other great apes … and (as much as 50%) with wheat plants. The pattern of genetic evidence follows the tell-tale patterns of ancestral relationships (more genes in common between recently related species, and fading the further back in time). Molecular evidence. Evidence from proteins. The specific proteins found in human color vision are exactly the same as those found in Old World primates (the great apes and the monkeys found in Africa and Asia). These proteins are absent in New World primates (the Central and South American monkeys), and from all other mammals. In fact among the New World primates, only the howler monkey has color vision … but these use slightly *different* proteins, coded on different locations and chromosomes, than humans and the OW primates. This is yet more evidence of a closer link between humans and the OW primates. Embryology – E.g. Legs on dolphin embryos; tails and gill folds on human embryos; snake embryos with legs; marsupial eggshell and carnuncle. Biogeography – The current and past distribution of species on the planet. E.g. almost all marsupials and almost no placental mammals are native to Australia … the result of speciation in a geographically isolated area. Homology – E.g. the same bones in the same relative positions in primate hands, bat wings, bird wings, mammals, whale and penguin flippers, pterosaur wings, horse legs, the forelimbs of moles, and webbed amphibian legs. Bacteriology, virology, immunology, pest-control – I.e. the way that bacteria evolve in response to antibiotics (we can compare strains of tuberculosis today, with samples of older epidemics and can see the specific structures), or viruses (like HIV) respond to antivirals, or insects evolving in response to pesticides.

…And there’s more…a LOT more. Denying evolution won’t make your god anymore real. Sorry.

41 Devon Ayers May 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm

he could have asked for opposition, such as a mountain to climb or a hill to mountain bike down. Then it wouldnt be hell, right?

42 Pete May 7, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Great article!
Suffering is indeed a fact of life, as certain as death, the question is not when it will come but how will you deal with it; modern western society has invested much of it’s resources in trying to avoid it; hence the impoverishment of life, meaning, character etc that we see around us.
To answer the above post from Ryan; The post is about meaning from suffering, what’s evolution got to do with how you respond to heartbreak and hunger? It doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution, suffering is a spur to growth. That holds true in both world views! In evolutionary terms it threatens, existence which encourages better resilience and survival strategies. I don’;t know what Rob meant but Evolution is at best a hypothesis or working theory, theiis evidence of genetic change but not to the extent that Darwin envisaged. Darwinian evolution seems to postulate the possibility of species diverging outside of their original genus, ie a fish becoming frog becoming a reptile, at least historically speaking. This is the bone of contention for most of it’s critics, whether they would state it as such or not. Species forming from others is common in the plant world, so why not in other life kingdoms, it can easily be explained by way of polyploidy, phenotypic plasticity and/or natural selection. The whole debate will become more fruitful when everybody involved starts using ideas and words according to their meaning and not according personal dogmatisms.
The point being made by the original post is that you’re response to suffering and hardship is a universal leveller; it reveals to us who we really are. When you’re aunty gets sick, do you stand by the theory of the survival of the fitest or do you call a doctor?

43 Charlie Boone May 7, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I was reminded of George Orwell’s essay about happiness requiring a contrast in order for it to even exist:

Should be of interest to anyone interested in thinking more deeply about happiness in this world.

44 KC May 7, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for bringing this to attention, AoM. Without pain, we would not appreciate pleasure. Without heart break, we might not know the privilege of love. Also, props for the Twilight Zone nod. I’ve always thought this show had great philosophical insight, coated with the classy/trippy visual aesthetics of the sixties. These spooky fable-type episodes always had me staying up late to catch it on TV once in a while.

45 Jim May 7, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I think what’s interesting about the idea of suffering and how people have discussed it in the comments is that we assume that suffering is a natural part of the world. In other words, we assume that our world began with suffering intrinsically woven into the fabric of reality and we assume that human beings are only capable of happiness and good character if there is some sort of suffering involved. The Christian story claims that the world began perfect and holy and the first people were perfectly happy in it. Their pride, however, (and the pride of all subsequent human beings) brought about the suffering that we see all around us. It’s only because there’s something broken in us that suffering produces the character that Paul talks about in Romans. The Christian God, who we see most wonderfully in Jesus, does not sit back and allow the world to suffer to make us into “better people”. He offers rescue through Jesus, who died and rose to new life so we could escape suffering when he returns to raise his followers from the dead. The Christian God does not sit idly by while humanity suffers and say, “You’ll thank me later.” He offers rescue through the resurrection of Jesus.

Until the day he returns, suffering does produce character in some, but it also kills others. It’s a terrible part of a broken world that is caused by our own broken egos. Are there children starving in your city? Why aren’t you feeding them? Are there people without access to decent health care or education? Why aren’t you helping them? We like to blame God for our mismanagement of his resources when it’s our own fault that most of the pain in the world exists. Yet despite that, God still wants to save us. One day, the world will be fixed, and we along with it.

I’d like to give a straight up Christian perspective to suffering that differs a great deal from the ways most people answer the question, “Why does God allow suffering in the world?” He doesn’t. He fixes it, but the fix will come in his own time. Until then, it’s my job and your job to do our best to minimize the worst of the suffering in the world.

46 Rob Dyson May 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Ryan: There’s so much that could be said, but I think Pete is right, this isn’t a post about evolution. I don’t presume to be able to make God real to you. But if He’s not, then what are you fighting against? Ignorant people? Romans 1:20

47 Zacharia Karami May 7, 2012 at 6:24 pm

@Rob Dyson

Yes, ignorant people. With the presumption that Christian are ignorant.

48 Caleb S. May 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm

To the Christians out there that are saying things like “death and disease are consequences of sinful behavior,” (Hutch) I think that you’re being completely irrational. That way of thinking has been a precursor to protests where people hold signs saying that AIDS is the cure for homosexuality, or leprosy in Africa is the cure for their “pagan” religions. It’s a completely outdated and intolerant way of thinking. Anyway, why should children die for the sins of others? The logic just isn’t there.

49 Quigath May 7, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I learned this principle long ago and yet I want to take this to the next level. I can already deal with the hardship that falls on me; but, the question is: should I actively seek out bitter in order experience the sweet?
Throughout life everyone seeks conveniences, things that make our lives easier. Should we also seek hardship to allow ourselves to grow? Big things like marriage and raising children might fall into this category of hardship that leads to accomplishment and a feeling of success. How about getting active politically or roughing it while camping? There have been several AOM posts that use these activities to overcome modern unmanliness.

50 Asriel May 7, 2012 at 9:12 pm

I love the twilight zone. I have the definitive collection, and ive probably watched all the episodes hundreds of times over. I watched it when i was growing up, and it definitely taught me lessons like be careful what you wish for, be happy with what you go, because it can be gone in a second, etc….

51 R.J. May 7, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Great article Brett and Kate.

This kind of topic hits me down in the deepest of my thoughts. The way I was raised, I thought that we all as humans cannot know good from evil or evil from good unless we have had “eaten” from each.

And such is the way with happiness. I feel that happiness can be attained, unless there is opposition in all things towards that goal. But, just doing simple things for people, like tolerating a man’s belief you find sinful, bu you still love them any way, is one such way. Though, like the age of Ozymandias, everything, no empire of man, or happiness, cannot be attained forever. We cannot have happiness without the drought of such condition. Happiness, is gathered like little flecks of gold, instead of looking for the “nuggets”. The process of getting those little flecks however, is a hard, enduring, and time-consuming process. Yet, when we look into that heavy bag of gold, filled to the brim with specks, the reward is greater than any ingots you can mold.

52 Travis May 7, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Couldn’t have read this at a better time in my life.
Keep up the good work AOM

53 Andrew Kincaid May 7, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Very insightful post! I’ve been a long time lurker…er…reader…but this is my first time commenting (that I recall).

Anyway, here are my two cents. I basically agree with everything in the post, and I especially like the inclusion of one of my favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone to illustrate the basic premise.

I skimmed through the comments and I wanted to add this. It doesn’t seem to me that the point of this article is to say that the suffering of life (both physical and psychological) will lead to happiness, the cultivation of virtue, etc by necessity. I’ve seen people suffer immensely in their own lives and gain hardly any insight. Suffering can destroy a person and leave them little more than a bitter shell full of nothing more than spite and anger. I think we’ve all seen that at some point in our lives, especially the folks here who have been around longer.

No, the point is that suffering has the potential to lead to happiness and virtue, if the one who is suffering A) admits that suffering is a part of life B) stops blaming external situations for their suffering and C) uses their suffering as fertilizer for growth. It is a matter of perspective and insight, of changing ones mindset from having an external locus of control to having an internal locus of control.

I’ve seen the tremendous suffering of those who starve, are in war zones, etc all mentioned here as well. However, even those awful things can galvanize people do do amazing things. Like the people of Liberia and other African countries who are leading peaceful movements to overthrow despotic dictatorships, or the missionaries who do work in foreign fields and bring food and medicine to those who can find no help from their own governments.

To conclude, I think the point being made here is that suffering is simply a part of life. The Buddha thought it was so important to point that out that he made it the first of the Four Noble Truths. Now, how we handle that simple truth is what is truly important and what determines out happiness – will it destroy us, or will we use our suffering as compost to fertilize the garden that is our soul?

54 John Howard May 8, 2012 at 8:00 am

Great, inspiring article.

(Regarding the evolutionary debate, it’s worth mentioning that in Europe people who deny the facts of evolution are considered fringe lunatics and have no credibility whatsoever)

55 Jese May 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

That is a great point Andrew…after all, Rocky suffered in his life before he got to hell and didn’t “learn” from it. So then he is doomed to the extreme version of “happiness” in hell. People react to life and problems differently. Some people get sick and say, wow I really appreciate it when I am not sick. Some people get sick and say woe is me, I am so unlucky because I am sick. And in that way, you create your own happiness or unhappiness. I think when you add on the moral implications it get sticky though. I think it is more likely that the way you respond has to do with genetics, personality, and your life experiences rather than your upstanding moral character.

56 Chris May 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

What a great post! I am working on a treatise concerning Gratitude. This fits perfectly with the concept of being “thankful” for things that may not seem good. (This, of course, is made easier after the passing of some time).

57 TH May 8, 2012 at 10:31 am

Brett and Kate, from my experience I have rarely encountered writers who are more interested in bringing theists and atheists together than widening the rift. Both groups are chiefly interested in finding truth and meaning to live the greatest possible life, and your posts convey that. Thanks

58 Rob Dyson May 8, 2012 at 11:02 am

@John Howard, thanks for that insightful and compelling clarification.

59 Adam May 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Don’t usually comment on these articles, but I was really quite intrigued by this one. Someone provided further up the thread provided a great link to a George Orwell (thanks alot! and what a wonderful writer…) essay on this very topic, which I think really describes the complexity of what we are trying to figure out here. He makes the point that any idea of utopia is essentially relative to that point in history. So a thousand years ago, people were just happy to survive the winter (which is why celebrating christmas historically became so important). So imagine what their idea of utopia must have been? Enough food for crops? Now think about what our idea of ‘utopia’ is like, where we are lucky enough to have much higher living standards? The idea of ‘suffering’ essentially changes over time (and it also changes when we go round the world, we can see how different societies and cultures understand ‘suffering’ in many different ways). A child being born into a life of poverty in a poor African nation has a very different existence from a child being born in a poor part of the European continent. This potentially allows for that child to have a very different notion of what constitutes ‘suffering’. So I guess for me, that ‘relativity’ is very important. As although every single one of us will suffer at some point in our lives, our ability to rationalise the challenges we face depend on many further factors, such as education, circumstances, character, family upbringing, religious belief, attitude, health..this list could just go and on.

Orwell also notes that how difficult it is to describe or even understand what a potential utopia could even look like (think about it, hell is quite easy to imagine but what really could satisfy us all for eternity?). He notes that throughout literature, there is much said about hell (Blake, Milton) but not alot said about heaven. And when it is described by the religious, it is very much in passive, unspecified terms, such as ‘blissful’ or ‘heavenly’. I had the same thoughts throughout my catholic education actually, come to think of it. Ask priests to describe hell, they can do that extremely well (and scare the hell outta you too!) But they never really talked about heaven so much. I remember on the church wall there was a picture of Jesus ascending to heaven and the only thing that could be seen was Jesus’ feet as the rest of his body was in the clouds, and that idea of ‘white clouds’ seems to be the dominant perception of heavenly existence is. A world of peace and love and all that. But if I was still a believer, I wouldn’t be looking forward to that at all. As Brett notes in the article, the idea of a world without suffering somehow becomes, strangely ever more hellish. But that’s me and I entirely respect anyone’s right to belive what they want.

60 John Borges May 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm

That “Colonel Sanders” gentlement (Pip) was that Sebastian Cabot?

Great article.
I have it on an expert opinion (a relative of mine is a professor of classics) that the thesis by Seneca is even better in the original latin!

61 mattoomba May 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm

How does the existence of what we define as “suffering” in any way prove there isn’t a god? And if there is a god, then how does suffering proves he isn’t a loving one?

First of all, it is our temporary perspective here on earth that colors our definition of “suffering.” People die, and that’s awful. Is it? Or do we think it’s awful because we don’t know what happens after death? Maybe death is the solution, not the problem. Don’t think your perspective in any way defines reality. The Buddhists cover suffering quite extensively, saying the suffering is not the problem, our attachment to comfort is the problem. You can look at their philosophy for a non-Christian religious perspective on the topic.

Another point: we were designed to benefit from suffering. Your immune system must encounter sickness to generate the t-cells that stave off that illness in the future. Your muscles must be broken down by a weight-demand in order for them to rebuild and become stronger. You learn lessons and become wiser by burning your finger, getting your heart broken, losing money to a con artist, and getting a bad test grade in calculus.

It sounds like we were designed to thrive in a world of “suffering,” either by adapting and growing, or by transcendental recognition that our attachment is the problem, not the suffering.

62 john May 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm

It would be so easy to think of no God; much easier to believe. But here’s what most don’t understand theology wise, according to Christianity. We did have a perfect world, but also a choice. That choice of sin threw it into an imperfect world where actions have consequences. God did love the world, but because he is the opposite of sin, he can’t stop it. Otherwise we’d be meaningless robots. The whole point of Jesus was to make a way where we can have a perfect life forever. This life is supposed to be temporary, with a promise of heaven.

Not that I expect you to believe any of that.

63 Evan R May 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm

GREAT ARTICLE! Thank you Brett and Kate for understanding this topic, and sharing it with us!

Many people have trouble dealing with extreme evil, pain, and suffering and therefore cannot fathom an omnipotent and yet loving God. However:

1. We have the knowledge of good and evil.
2. We have the ability to love others, and the need to be loved.
3. We have free will.

Imagine a line that goes from black and white, with shades of gray in between. (If you can’t, search for “gray scale”)
Now let black represent the most horrible evil you can imagine and white represent absolute good.
Let’s say black is too evil, so God decides to get rid of it. Since we know the darkest gray is the most evil thing on the planet, we ask “Why does God allow dark gray?” never knowing that there was a black at all. You can eliminate the darker half of the scale, but that only gives us less options, it doesn’t change the fact that know this gray(or action) is more evil than this gray. Even if we remove all but the lightest of grays, that gray will still become the darkest and most evil thing we know, thereby unacceptable, which brings us to the problem of whether or not to have one color or two and you cannot have free will without at least two options. I would not be surprised if there were evils blacker than black that God has seen fit to keep from us already…

The gray-scale example can be applied to love (or good) as well as evil, and I was going to discuss that, along with issues regarding acts of evil (terroism) vs. suffering (famine). However, this “comment’ is lengthier than I would’ve liked, and I would like to invite others to continue this discussion here:

P.S. The video is a great auxiliary teacher for those of us who’s primary learning style isn’t linguistic!

64 danny dailey May 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Good work, Brett and Kate.

It has been said that men are like tea bags. When submerged in hot water, the internal contents seep out. We all control the contents of our proverbial tea bag. If we fill our lives with what is right/virtuous/manly/etc, our excellent composition will be displayed (even if only to ourselves) when adversity besets.
Thanks again, AOM, for the provocation of thought.

65 Kyron May 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm

I love the Twilight Zone, it gives you an interesting outlook on life sometimes.

66 Michael S. Hilton May 8, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Great article. I can look back a lot of the hard times I went through and attest to the points you made – in fact, I’m even thankful for some of the hardships! Thank you for sharing and doing what you do.

67 mike May 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm

There’s even a passage I think its in Hebrews where it says Jesus was made perfect in His Passion.

68 Julio CG May 9, 2012 at 2:07 am

I see many people don’t like the idea that God allows millions to die young, to be tortured, to starve, etc. However, I believe those of us who won’t accept this are missing the point. If you are brutally tortured for years, and then go to Heaven for eternity,, the brutal torture was completely worth it. Heaven is eternal joy (THAT is where I have trouble), so no matter how terrible the suffering, it means very little, because it is finite. It’s like working a year straight in order to live for free the rest of your life-completely worth it.
Great post, this is what I come to AOM for.

69 Mark May 9, 2012 at 6:26 am

I’m a Navy Hospital Corpsman stationed overseas. I have many friends deployed and in deployable units. I read this post last night. I thought about it through out work today. Especially this passage
“Valour is greedy of danger, and thinks only of whither it strives to go, not of what it will suffer, since even what it will suffer is part of its glory. Soldiers pride themselves on their wounds, they joyously display their blood flowing over their breastplate. Though those who return unwounded from battle may have done as bravely, yet he who returns wounded is more admired…”
I have friends who wish to get shot at or get deployed and shoot at something. One shouldn’t wish for misfortunes I told my friends, it might be more than what you asked for. One also shouldn’t wish to go to battle for awards and ribbons. One should just go to battle and do your best. Knowing that you did all that you could, isn’t that the Stoic way.

70 RJ May 9, 2012 at 11:30 am

Chime , JJ , Why did this have to become an AntiChristian / God blog for you ? Ever think that possibly.. since many scriptures talk of how GOD granted Man Rulership in the Earth… and we fell into Sins of breaking the Pattern.. We are the Cause of such horrible suffering? He has directed us to change.. Turn back.. and given us ways to do so.. much of the result is Tragic.. yes. Think He doesn’t see that? For now.. Dealing with Suffering should be seen as a Challenge to Overcome.. to show Character.. there is absolutely nothing wrong with that thinking.. it actually Works. GOD issue aside.. Humans have been wrestling with Purpose and Meaning.. GOD and Heaven.. Death and Real LIFE.. suffering and Pleasure for as long as man has been able to speak. You are stumped , so you close your mind? Read more.

71 PLynch May 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm

“”If you are brutally tortured for years, and then go to Heaven for eternity,, the brutal torture was completely worth it. It’s like working a year straight in order to live for free the rest of your life-completely worth it. “”
Please tell me your post was sarcastic, and your just trolling us. Please.

“”since many scriptures talk of how GOD granted Man Rulership in the Earth”
I think you mean “DOMAIN” over the earth and it’s creatures yada yada. If you want to research on that one though, the original meaning of the earlier versions translates to something like “Left the Responsibility of the earth and it’s creatures to man”, not Rulership to use her and her resources how we please. Clever little change in definition to make what we do with our Animals and resources more in line with the WORD.

72 Simon B May 10, 2012 at 5:22 am

I appreciate that AoM needs to find articles etc to write about but sometimes it really gets on my nads how the tone keeps banging on about ‘ toil, hardship and strife’ being the marks of a man and ‘opportunities to grow’ yada yada.

As someone who has expereinced enough of this in his life I would gladly swap a life of greater ease and feel no particualry undermining of my masculinity in the process. How these are marks of ‘masculinity’ strikes me more as machismo rather than masculinity. Toil and strife can as much be a part of a ladys life so does this mean she undermines her femininity ? of course not.

Toil and strife are likely more in the area of greatness than sex, the former of which as shakespeare cited, some are born with, some achieve and some have it thrust upon them’

Frankly you can keep you toil and strife at times and bring on the Good Times…

73 Jesse May 10, 2012 at 8:57 am

RJ – It isn’t that this became an anti christian blog for non-Christians, when you don’t believe in a certain religion then you don’t see out of that lens. As a christian you run your life through the lens of Christianity and as a non christian I don’t. So you have this other set of knowledge that you think is absolutely true and so you know there is bad things in the world and you have to process that information in a way that lines up with your belief. I don’t. There is nothing wrong with either viewpoint but we are going to come to different conclusions.

74 Andrew Hill May 10, 2012 at 9:05 am

Thank you Brett and Kate. Fantastic article and great job tying together Serling and Seneca.
I apologize to all of those who have been slighted or wronged by Christians. I think if you take a moment to stop and look around and reflect on our awe-inspiring universe, you can see and feel that God is real and He loves us. It is not God’s fault that the world suffers. Mankind is responsible for the evil bestowed on one another. God allows suffering in order to bring us back to Him. God loves us and wants us to return our affections back to Him. If he didn’t let us make our own choices, it wouldn’t be love.
He lets us make our own choices and He offers us a better alternative: His alternative. And His alternative alleviates all suffering eternally. While we may suffer here for a moment, the true glory of victory and salvation will last in the age that is to come.

75 Sean May 20, 2012 at 11:36 am


I noticed no one replied to your extremely valid point. While I like this post as a reminder of bitter/sweet… you sir are correct that we sweep the cancer stricken and starving out of our minds. When a person faces bitter for the remainder of their life… this concept does not resound quite so triumphantly,

76 Matt_TheCatholic May 24, 2012 at 5:03 am

Brilliant article =)

77 Bekk May 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

A good article and an issue I have mulled over for sometime, which lead me to the Stoics, Aristotles, etc and now here. There are some really good arguments among the commenters , I would say that to a degree it is relative, but not in a short term or long term framework. All can agree that contrast through whatever means creates stimulus, it makes us see perspective, opens our eyes in other words, comfort or living in ease doesn’t allow for much stimulus, therefor growth, be it the body or mind, and this is the circumstances in our lifetime, we don’t have to get up at 4am or 5 to fish for breakfast or till the land or forage in order not to starve, but to allow our physical and mental abilities to deteriorate isn’t good either, so we push ourselves through exercise and challenges(mentally and physically) to grow, stimulate or renew ourselves. That pain or discomfort makes us feel alive. The suffering in the world (hunger, cruelty, war, rape etc)is a different kind of suffering, and we must separate between man made and natural causes, man made is due to(or results from) the human condition and as such, falls on our responsibility, as a whole, we cause it through our ignorance, our compliance, our ‘good intentions’, our laziness or apathy. Evil does not exist, the potential is in us all, and start with childhood, what our genetic condition responds with as in sensitivity or adrenalin and how we respond or learn to respond, to individual social stimulus from society or culture and family exerted on us, while growing up, will cause ‘evil’, or good to manifest later in life(escape from freedom, man for himself -Eric Fromm). In the case of Nature, it is like bad weather, nothing to blame for, but endure and try to learn from it and prevent future occurences(i.e tsunami’s, volcano’s).
Regarding God’s place in the world, I prefer to let it be a personal matter, but the argument can be philosophical, if God gave us free will, then, if he interfere in any way to save us from harm or choices, we are not free anymore, we become an object or subject to his will(manupilated). We are made in his image, I would assume with the same capacity for free will included.
Live or die and hunger and ease is to some degree a mixture of luck, fate or our choices, if we were given one, not that we can ever be as free as the word suggests, we are always subject to our genetic conditions(phlegmatic or choleric, disabilities etc), our immediate environment(political authority etc) or acts of god(nature) or the illusions or lack of self awareness we have since childhood, to some degree, but those are only the limitations we live in, the boundaries or rules, once we understand them we are free to decide our place in them, once we break loose from our illusions and immature narcissism, we become more aware of our real condition and the real issues, the reality that face us and as such can change those to some degree, if not, you’re always able to remove yourself from it. In the end constant education, self or formal or constant knowledge is the beginning and answer IMHO
@Aaron, I like the premise of the author argument, I haven’t come across it before,
I must say I enjoy most of the comments as much as the article

78 Aaron Bailey June 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm

I’m interested in your use of the phrase “opposition in all things”. Were you conciously quoting 2 Nephi 2:11? That phrase, printed in 1830 in the most profound discussion of this topic recorded anywhere (2 Nephi 2), should be cited in the article.

79 jerry May 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I have come to the conclusion after many years of life that we are not defeated by the pain of life…we are defeated by the unfulfilled unrealistic expectations that we foist on ourselves trying to find meaning in life. Believe in God or not…I don’t care but please don’t harm me or mine because you think that there is no God to set you straight in the end. Those that overbear their beliefs are as annoying to me as those that overbear their lack of belief.

80 osled May 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm

So how long to we have to suffer before we’re satisfied? The “villain” in TTZ episode above can’t enjoy anything because he’s selfish. True happiness comes from sharing the good things in life, not from suffering. The only real purpose of suffering is to transcend it.

81 JMarkAlbright May 6, 2013 at 5:08 pm

My father, one of the best men I have ever known always let me stay up and watch The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock. The TZ and OL were very good examples of moral tales. A modern mythology of humanity and our place in the universe and society. I do believe God exist in the minds and hearts of mankind. After all God is an invention of man as is heaven and hell are consequences and rewards for our behavior. It is said that the best that man can hope for this side of the grave is to know the great evil he is capable of. The TZ and OL also showed the great good that mankind is capable of through love and selfless behavior. People believe what they want but in the end it is our actions that determine the quality of our lives not a mythological being. The mystery of God is shallow. The mystery of Man is deep. As for the episode itself the message I got was a simple be careful what you wish for. Needs are as different from wants as deeds are from words. To paraphrase Tom Waits, Bad writing has greatly diminished the quality of our suffering.

82 Dave Chiu May 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm

paraphrasing Jesus’ answer to the question

“Was this man born blind because his parents sinned, or was it for his own misdeed before this life?”

“Neither, but that the glory of God might be made manifest.”

In that case He performed a literally spectacular miracle, but the 99.99+% usual application of manifesting the glory of God is via good people helping/dealing with raw deal unfairness.

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