Friedrich Nietzsche’s life was marked by pain. Weak health, strokes, and even paralysis, all plagued him throughout the years. Paradoxically, his unhappy existence allowed him to get a clearer view on the meaning of life.
In his work Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche had a short reflection on how the world works.
“Did you ever say yes to a pleasure?
Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain.
All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.””
Nietzsche saw the world as an interplay of opposites. Just like in classical Chinese philosophy you have the yin and the yang, in his view pleasure and pain were entwined with each other. You can’t have one without the other.
In fact, Nietzsche could even be termed as an early prophet of anti-fragility. Whatever happens, if it doesn’t kill you, then it makes you stronger. So taking this proposition to its logical conclusion, pain is what allows you to grow.
Suffer a bit more, and for the rest of your life you will be the guy who climbed Everest
In the movie Everest, there is one scene that brilliantly captures what life is all about. Two characters, Doug and Beck, are sitting in a tent high on the mountain discussing why they are putting themselves through so much punishment.
Beck: When I’m at home I just got this big, black cloud following me. You know, like a depression? And when I’m out here on a mountain, any mountain…
Beck: It’s just like it’s a cure. I feel like I’m reborn.
Doug: So, you’re happy now?
Beck: No, I’m starting to wonder. This is suffering, man. Yeah. This is suffering.
Doug: Yeah. Suffer a few more days, for the rest of your life you’ll be a guy that got to the top of Everest.
Suffer a bit, but that struggle has a sweet spot. For as long as you live, you will be the person who accomplished something extraordinary. Doug’s statement in that film reminded me of a quote from Muhammad Ali.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.‘” — Muhammad Ali
Ali hated training, but he realized that this hard part was a necessary step for becoming a champion. The feeling you get once you accomplish your journey is worth all the hard steps, all the falls, and all the bruises you get while getting there.
That stays with you forever. It’s eternal.
Climbing up a mountain and then coming back down
I know pain from many angles. The pain of sorrow. The pain of sickness and injury. All that is suffering I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience.
Yet, I also know other types of pain. The pain of pushing yourself hard through a workout. The pain of a long run in rainy weather. I also know the type of pain Doug and Beck discussed. I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Blanc, as well as other mountains, and came back down to tell the tale.
This second type of pain is the key to experiencing life’s greatest moments. It gives you an awesome feeling right after you accomplish something challenging. In certain cases, like climbing a mountain, that feeling stays with you for a lifetime.
In his book The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, psychology professor Paul Bloom divides suffering into two types: unchosen suffering and chosen suffering.
Unchosen suffering is largely negative, although it can give rise to meaning. Viktor Frankl went through hell while living in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He found meaning in this unchosen pain, and it made him as a person.
Professor Bloom, however states that much of unchosen suffering is bad:
“A lot of suffering is, unsurprisingly, bad for you. You should avoid it. You should avoid being assaulted. There’s no bright side to the death of a loved one. There’s no happiness in watching your house burn down. Nor is there happiness to be found in getting a horrible disease. Unchosen suffering is awful.” — Paul Bloom
Whereas unchosen suffering is often negative, chosen suffering is a whole other animal. Chosen suffering is what Doug and Beck were raving about in Everest. Chosen suffering is what Muhammad Ali highlighted as the key to the life of a champion. Chosen suffering is what is behind the awesome feelings I get after finishing a workout, a run, or after having climbed a mountain.
The benefits of chosen suffering is the moral of many old tales. In the ancient legend of the choice of Hercules, the hero is given two options by a pair of beautiful goddesses. Live a life of empty pleasure. Or live a life of struggle, but find meaning in that struggle.
Hercules, being the wise man he was, chose the second option. It was his chosen suffering that made him a legend.
Why people in the modern world are depressed
Recently, I had a strange conversation which in a way embodies what is wrong with the modern world. It would not be as disturbing if this were an exception, and not the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, this type of mindset is much too common.
Nick is in his mid-30s, but his baby face has him looking younger than he is. His alcohol, drugs, and I don’t give a fuck attitude make him attractive to girls. Yet, something is off. Way off.
“Man! I want at least an 8.5,” quips Nick as we are sitting, drinking a beer. “I am pimping up my Instagram, and I have only low quality girls contacting me.”
Since I now think in emoji-talk, a mental facepalm flashes inside my brain. Not this again!
“Seriously? You should be happy. You are doing much better than the vast majority of other guys. Accept reality and stop wasting your time playing around with filters,” I tell him.
As Nick hears this, his eyes widen, “Instagram is where it’s at now.”
I shake my head. Trying to change the subject, I pull out the secret weapon, “Do something productive. Go for a hike. Take a class. When is the last time you went to the gym?”
Damn! His eyes stop blinking. His mouth drops. It’s as if he were a deer caught in the headlights. The question apparently hits the mark.
“Two weeks ago. I think,” he answers slowly.
We had talked about this before. Many times. Nick has the belly of a pregnant lady a week away from giving birth, but keeps insisting he is about to get serious with the gym habit. Always next week, of course.
As the conversation continues, it is excuse after excuse flying around. Then he takes out his cigarettes. Again.
“Not this shit again!” My mental face-palm turns into a real one.
Drawing a long puff and exhaling, Nick’s face expands, “It helps me relax! I am under a lot of stress right now. I feel like shit. My blonde goddess hasn’t come in yet.”
I shake my head in disbelief.
The blonde model chasing lawyer continues, “I will quit. Just not right now. In six months.”
“Seriously! Our friend John is in a relationship and he hasn’t gotten laid in a month! I haven’t had a date in since forever. But you… You just went out with a cute chick last weekend,” I grow flustered. “You are like a millionaire complaining to a homeless guy about not being a billionaire!”
The lights aren’t getting turned on in Nick’s head, “but she wasn’t even an 8.”
It’s useless. The conversation keeps going in circles. I decide to pull the plug.
“You need to get a hobby,” growing a bit restless, I go for the kill. “How many pullups can you do?”
For me, if a man is a serious gym-goer, and disciplined, he should be able to do at least a few. I measure a guy’s worth in pullups.
“Never tried. Probably none,” answers Nick. With that, I rest my case. As he posts another upbeat Instagram story of his dancing antics, and shows off more of his happy life, I turn to other things.
I figured out the problem.
Nick isn’t alone in leading an aimless life, constantly feeling depressed. It’s the standard now. Many people try to drown this out by getting hooked on social media, drinking too much, even turning to molly, shrooms, Mary Jane, or other creatively nicknamed substances.
It’s quite disturbing how normalized drug-taking has become. It’s considered routine, even cool.
Drugs are used by people as a solution to problems that are often only in their heads. They think they are in pain. In reality, a little bit of perspective could go a long way toward showing them how BS their worldview is.
Paradoxically, this constant depression is the result of having too much. As psychiatrist Anna Lembke, author of the book Dopamine Nation says, the reason is simple.
“We’re now having to cope with: How do I live in a world in which everything is provided?” — Anna Lembke
Whereas in ancient times, Hercules chose the path of struggle, today it’s different. Most people prefer to choose the first path. And you can see where that leads to.
That is the problem with the modern generation. They don’t suffer enough.
Discipline is the key to success
The ancient Stoic view on life can be summarized by an epic quote from Epictetus.
“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself.’” — Epictetus
Hard winter training. That phrase reminds me of wading in the snow at 3 in the morning, while trying to ascend Mt. Blanc. That for me was one of the toughest tests of character I had experienced up to that point. Pure suffering.
When I was younger, I avoided pain like the plague. When the going got tough, when discomfort started creeping in, I would quit. One reason for that. My mind was weak.
I had done no winter training. I would rather avoid pain than win. Yet, to win, pain is necessary. And the best way to withstand it, is to practice.
Putting myself through voluntary discomfort by practicing martial arts, going to the gym, and climbing mountains has been life changing. It strengthened my body, but most of all, it strengthened my mind.
Reaching out into the past, Stoic philosopher Seneca’s words can teach us valuable lessons.
“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” — Seneca
This type of toughening up is at the core of changing your mindset. Discipline is suffering. Discipline is pain. Most people can’t handle that. Winter training, as the Stoics used to call it, is what will allow you to get used to that pain.
It will help you build up the willpower needed to become disciplined. Then sky is the limit. Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink perhaps summarized best what discipline will allow you to do.
“Discipline equals freedom.” — Jocko Willink
Certain types of pain can be surprisingly healthy for you
The ancient Epicureans were about living a life of pleasure. Much of that, however was based on avoiding pain. Called “aponia” in Greek, the absence of pain was the secret to the heights of bodily pleasures.
Yet even these disciples of pleasure admitted that at least a little pain is often necessary to live a good life. That’s because this pain can lead to greater pleasures down the road.
“And oftentimes we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.” — Epicurus
And what is the greatest of pleasures if not good health?
Not only can pain lead to feelings of glory, it can actually also improve your health. I say so. Scientists say so. Wim Hof says so. Yup. This elderly Dutchman raves about the benefits of cold exposure.
You heard right. Cold exposure. “The Iceman”, as he is known, goes around bare-chested all day, his only piece of clothing being short shorts. He is a big proponent of cold showers as the basis of a healthy lifestyle. Apparently, that’s his secret to a good life.
Cold showers are freaking painful! Anyone who has ever tried taking one can attest to the fact they are pure suffering. I have managed to go only a few weeks before giving them up.
Hof’s statements have been backed up by several studies, including one which found that participants who underwent a month of cold showers were 29% less sick than those who didn’t. Another study concluded that cold exposure gives athletes a small boost to their immune system.
Taking a cold shower might feel like shit, but that slight immunity edge could keep you from getting sick. Combine it with a regular exercise routine, and a little bit of suffering will result in a whole bunch of good stuff.
Running a few kilometers in the morning can be painful, but it improves your cardiovascular health. Not being out of breath all the time, and having a strong heart, will have great benefits for you down the road. Besides, as author of Born to Run Christopher McDougall discovered, physical activity like running can keep you from getting old.
“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” — Christopher McDougall
The ancient Epicureans were right. A little submission to pain can give rise to greater pleasures. For your mind. And for your body.
What you should do
Writer Christopher McDougall sees the fact that modern people stopped engaging in chosen pain as the source of many of the problems we have.
“Perhaps all our troubles — all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome — began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.”
― Christopher McDougall
Chosen suffering teaches you lessons. It makes you stronger. Physically and mentally.
“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked.”
― Christopher McDougall
If you are reading this, get off your ass and go do something. Something that scares you. Something that makes you sweat, and your body ache. Something hard.
In this world, there is fake pain, and there is real pain. Fake pain is the suffering my friend Nick experiences. It’s made up. It’s due to him applying filter upon filter to his life, and not living according to nature as the Stoics used to say. It’s him not choosing the path of Hercules.
As French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty taught us, your body is your entry point into the world. When you live in the virtual world, you will suffer for sure, but it is an empty type of suffering.
Rather, it’s real pain that can lead you somewhere in this life. Just like struggle led Hercules to become a legend. While unchosen pain can give you meaning, like it did for Viktor Frankl, it’s the chosen type of pain that is the most rewarding.
And all this takes us back to Friedrich Nietzsche. A conversation with him sheds a light on what it means to live. Starting off, he can seem quite harsh.
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche wishes us to suffer pain? What a bastard!
But wait! He actually has a point.
“I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche proposes a path of self-overcoming, one that culminates in personal growth, in self-mastery. This is the key to the good life. It can never be achieved without pain. The right kind of pain.