It’s a cliché of screenwriter manuals that all stories must be instigated by the Call To Adventure. But it is true. Something or someone must inspire our hero to venture forth from his ordinary existence and begin his quest.
Well, in truth real life doesn’t quite work that way. Life doesn’t quite have the neat, logical, satisfying rhythm of a tale well told with its clean and timely act breaks and comforting resolutions and catharses. Life itself can only be understood in retrospect, if at all, which is why we invented stories in the first place, as a means of trying to impose some order on the seeming chaos that is human life as it moves forward through time.
But people are capable of change, of growth. We have seen it with our own eyes. People can be galvanised to act differently, to live differently, but the instrument of this change is rarely some wise wizard or chance discovery or convenient MacGuffin. In real life, suffering is the instrument of change.
And yet when suffering comes knocking, as it inevitably does, our human nature instinctively attempts to shoo it away or ignore it or hope that it will eventually leave of its own accord. Which of course it never does.
Unlike the stories that we imbibe as the sun comes down- novels, Netflix, podcasts, anecdotes—the sad truth is that many real world lives are stories that never leave the first act. This is what happens when when suffering is medicalised and anaesthetised and avoided, rather than turned into something productive. This is what suffering, in a sense, is for.
This is what we are going to talk about today.
Already I can sense there are objections to be faced. That word “suffering” is freighted with all kinds of meanings and misunderstandings. And as to argue is ultimately to argue semantics I’ll clear up what I’m talking about when I talk about suffering.
I don’t mean physical pain per se—although that can be part of it—I don’t mean inconvenience or mere unpleasantness, I am talking more of that which in our world of pop-psychology and differential diagnoses might be labelled depression. What in a more romantic past might have been called melancholia and blamed on black bile, a line of reasoning arguably no less dubious than the chemical imbalance hypothesis on which SSRI prescribing is based.
But I digress.
Suffering is the misery and mental distress that we have all felt the sting of, at least for a little time. It is the thing whose name cannot be spoken in a culture of self-help pablum and posturing. It is the thing which is near-fetishised in the well-meaning but often misguided world of mental health awareness raising.
Don’t get me wrong, to deny or to belittle someone’s suffering is to make them suffer all the more. But to completely define yourself by it is an insidious trap that invites covert oneupmanship, which is pointless and tedious and destructive all at ones.
Suffering is the product of prolonged adversity, of enduring difficulties in relationships and work. It is the signal of the disintegration of safety, the root of the word disorder being the taking away (dis) of that which is regular and orderly (order). This is why they are called “breakdowns”. This is why we refer to people with such struggles as “cracking up”.
In the midst of such an episode, life seems a trial and a pointless one at that. Everything is a burden and a strain, the future loses all power to inspire and motivate. But if life is suffering, as the Buddha claims, then the meaning of life is to find meaning in your suffering.
The way out is to make the suffering productive. Which is where stories come in. Every story is the story of transformation. And as Schopenhauer tells us, the transformation brought about by awareness is paid for with suffering. Nothing comes for free. The awareness of death is what separates us from the animals. You don’t get the advantages of being human without paying the toll along the way.
And so suffering is a signal. A call to change to be heeded but also an emblem of the fact that your consciousness might be growing. That the plot is progressing.
Storytelling, as a process, is too neat and too pat compared to reality. But this is so the message sticks. So the message can be understood even by someone who is in the doldrums of suffering.
The story of story itself offers a way out. A way through. The change of heart and the gift of awareness brought about by the story’s end can only come about after the hero has first endured the “dark night of the soul”. The breakthrough can only come after the breakdown. The process must unfold.
Suffering that leads somewhere is meaningful, suffering that has no purpose soon becomes unendurable. Complete, inactive despair keeps the story stuck in the first act. Self-numbing behaviour keeps the story stuck in the first act. Meaning can only be wrung from maladies by bravely choosing to move forward.
Plot is dictated by character, in writing and in life. Characters act with agency because there is always the freedom to choose. Life is no different. And if you choose to persevere through suffering you will endure. And the transformation at the other side of it will have been well earned.