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Only Vulnerable Creatures Suffer: On Suffering, Embodiment and Existential Health

Chapter in book
Authors Ola Sigurdson
Published in Phenomenology of the Broken Body. Edited by Espen Dahl, Cassandra Falke, and Thor Eirik Eriksen
Pages 87–100
ISBN 9781138616004
Publisher Routledge
Place of publication New York/London
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion
Pages 87–100
Language en
Keywords suffering, suffering and embodiment, work of suffering, existential health
Subject categories Practical philosophy, Ethics, Philosophy of religion, Public health science


In this article I explore how suffering, embodiment and existential health relate to each other through a phenomenological analysis. I am especially interested in how suffering, which I will argue should be distinguished from the experience of pain, relates to human agency, and how suffering becomes a particular mode of being in the world. Suffering is essential for the understanding of human beings as vulnerable creatures. It is through suffering as an ‘active passivity’ that we can transform the experience of pain (or any cause of suffering) to a constructive relationship that could be called ‘existential health’. The first part, on suffering, proceeds through a conceptual analysis of such concepts as ‘suffering’, ‘passion’ and ‘pain’, where the aim is to highlight experiential distinctions between these related concepts. In this part, I take a short historical detour with the help of theology and the idea of the martyr, to clarify some points about the relation between activity and passivity in suffering. The second part, then, tries to understand the bodily conditions of suffering, and especially how it could introduce a distinction between my self and the pain I am experiencing, giving rise to a particular experience of embodiment. The third part deals with existential health with regard to suffering, and how ‘health’ in this aspect might mean an active relationship towards one’s own pain, achieved through the work of suffering. Finally, I conclude that suffering is essential in recognizing the vulnerability of our human creatureliness, and that this might have consequences for how we think about human agency as well as political and social matters.

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