Understanding Our Relationship to Suffering – Creating a Goal

dobetterwithdan, philosophy, suffering, creating meaning, Nietzsche

What is our aversion to suffering? What makes us avoid or ignore certain problems and difficulties?

In Genealogy of Morality (GM), Nietzsche suggests that it is not the suffering as such that bothers us…No, that is not the problem. Rather, it is not having a reason for our suffering.

(See my related article, Waiting – Kafka’s Parable Before the Law)

As Nietzsche sees it, it is pointless or meaningless suffering that we struggle with most, that we deny. When we have a reason, a purpose for our suffering, we face it, we even seek it out.

“The human being…does not deny suffering as such: he wants it, he even seeks it, supposing that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose for suffering.”


In the context of GM, Nietzsche makes this claim at the very end of the third essay, What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean? It highlights another point he makes, one made at both the outset and the close of GM.

“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”


All of us experience problems, large and small, throughout our lives. Most, if not all, change and development involves the overcoming of some obstacle, difficulty, or problem.

All goals entail some resistance, something that must be dealt with to realize our end. To find out what we are capable of, to realize ourselves in the world, we must overcome obstacles, difficulties, and face resistance head-on.

(See my related article, What is Strength of Will?)

Understanding the Point of Suffering

When do we suffer most? It seems to me that we do suffer most when we lack a meaning, lack a purpose for our suffering. When we have no way to explain our suffering, it seems like pointless pain or stress, a weight or burden that drags us down.

In such cases, we deny it, we seek ways to escape from it or find ways to avoid it. When our suffering is meaningless, pointless, or, rather, when we ourselves don’t see the point, it becomes much harder to confront, to face.

We want to understand ourselves, our lives. We want to know that what we do matters, that it is the right thing, that the path we travel is the correct one.  

(See my related post, How to Create a Meaningful Life)

When we do understand the why of our suffering, we are usually able to confront it, to find the strength to endure it. This means, however, that we have a reason for suffering, that we identify and have some way to make sense of it.

If you think about it, is it not easier to endure suffering, difficulties, when you are pursuing something that you want, that you desire?  

When you make a choice to pursue something, when you exercise your agency, you value the goal and the whole process. The struggles and strife you encounter can be explained, you have a reason. It makes the struggles, the obstacles, important, relevant, a bridge to your goal.

Doing something, pursuing some goal simply because you are told to do it, because you are obligated to do it, is not the same as choosing the goal yourself. When you are told to pursue some goal, you haven’t identified with or internalized the reasons why you do it, and so any suffering, any obstacles encountered will seem all the more challenging, all the more pointless.

When you make a choice to pursue something, you are actively identifying it as important, as something you value. The struggle or suffering entailed, big or small, is meaningful because it is part of the process of realizing your aim.

Consider, for example, the difference between actively choosing to get in shape and improve your diet versus being told by your doctor that you must get in shape and improve your diet. In both cases, any resistance, any struggles you encounter will be the same.

What’s different, what makes those struggles bearable, understandable, is that in the former you make a choice, you exercise your agency. In the latter, however, you feel external pressure, you are told to do something, but you don’t necessarily internalize it.

This shift in perspective, between actively choosing your goal versus being told what goal to pursue, makes all the difference when it comes to facing suffering and life’s difficulties.

Making a choice, exercising our agency and giving ourselves a goal, makes us more likely to view the struggle, the suffering, as part of the process, as something meaningful and purposeful.

When we have a goal that we identify with, we interpret any resistance or suffering in pursuit of our goal differently.

(See my related article, Developing a Positive Mindset)

dobetterwithdan, suffering, authenticity, philosophy, Nietzsche

Creating a Goal, Creating Oneself

Is this the meaning the existentialists encourage us to create? Is creating meaning, creating ourselves, really about creating a reason for our suffering, some explanation that makes us able to endure it when necessary and to overcome it when possible?

This seems reasonable to me. What does it mean to create ourselves if not to create a reason for our suffering, for our struggles? What does it mean if not to create a meaning for our lives, a direction, and thus be able to explain the value of our actions?

Creating a life, creating a reason to live, implies having a reason to endure and overcome what must be endured and overcome.

At bottom, it’s about creating our own reasons for suffering, for living life, and by doing so taking ownership of our lives. We hold ourselves accountable, responsible, when we choose how to think and act. In doing so, we realize ourselves, our agency, in the process.

(See my related article, Freedom & Responsibility)

What’s more, when we understand why we suffer, we often view the suffering differently. We don’t avoid it, we don’t deny or hide from it, but face it as a necessary part of the process, of our development.

In my own experience, I’ve always thought of the struggles and difficulties I’ve had to endure differently when they were a consequence of pursuing something I wanted. Oftentimes, it hardly seemed like suffering at all, but a chance to prove myself, to realize myself.

Ask yourself: Do I know why I suffer? Am I struggling because I don’t have a reason, a purpose for my suffering?

(See my related post, The Inevitability and the Gift of Problems)

The Takeaway

Nietzsche’s insights remind us to ask ourselves why we act. We should have a reason to act that is our own, one we can internalize.

If we rethink suffering, if we reframe it in terms that we understand we can change our relationship to it.

Having a purpose that is your own, a reason for doing something, makes what you do, your struggles, all the more worthwhile. Your obstacles become something to value, a necessary part of the process, of your development.

(See my related article, What we can learn living underground)

Suffering need not be something we hide from, something we deny. Our suffering does not have to lead to the pursuit of distractions, of finding ways to not be ourselves or to escape life.

On the contrary, suffering can be our own, something we seek out, because through it we pursue the goals and ends we desire.

The struggles we encounter force us to overcome ourselves, to change and adapt ourselves, to grow. All of these are positive when we have a reason to do so, when we understand the purpose for our suffering.

As Nietzsche suggests, when a person has a reason to suffer, when a person understands why he suffers, “he wants it, he even seeks it.”

“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”


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Please check out these related articles: Nietzsche and Nihilism, Camus and Authenticity, Creating Clear Goals, Perspective—In pursuit of truth, Note to Self, Luck – What our view of luck says about us, To Exist Beyond Good & Evil, The Eternal Recurrence & Authenticity, and The Importance of Exploration and Experimentation.

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