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Narrative: Oscar Wilde - Suffering Is One Very Long Moment

In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde explores the nature of his own suffering and his personal journey to embrace it as a means to revitalize his life. His thoughts and ideas embrace an essential insight on learning; human suffering, and the agony and destitution that accompanies it, is an essential and vital force for animating the soul...

What is the Source of Suffering?

How did Wilde ruin himself? Without a clear understanding of how we create our own suffering, the possibility of surrendering ourselves to responsibility does not exist in any meaningful way. Wilde's confession about his ruin is precise:

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.

Suffering is often accompanied by an intense sense of loss. Suffering poignantly reminds us of the obvious - the past cannot be changed. But we can change our orientation to the past by doing something more productive with it in the present. Wilde pointed out that he felt as if "suffering freezes time" and he his entire life was literally frozen on "one centre of pain." This feeling of being frozen is the real prison, a prison that holds our heart, mind and spirit captive. Here the soul relentlessly and mercilessly forces us to pay attention. There is no great escape from this place. There is only submission. To capture the depth of suffering, Wilde refers to Wordsworth:

Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark, And has the nature of infinity.

Surrendering to the Soul

Suffering brings us into direct confrontation with survival. Our own survival. Suffering can be a matter of life or death and it is obvious that Wilde considered taking his own life. Instead, Wilde surrendered to his suffering by taking responsibility for it:

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to say so. I am trying to say so, though they may not think it at the present moment. This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

An important step in embracing suffering as a means to revitalize life is to accept complete and absolute responsibility for its presence in our soul. But more than a responsibility, suffering, if it is to have any real benefit, must be embraced as a basic necessity for the growth of the human soul. "I must say to myself that I ruined myself." This is a courageous act of surrendering oneself to the soul.

To some, the idea of "embracing suffering" may seem frightening if not foolish. Our modern society is more oriented toward the quick fix for our ills and pains, and has a tendency to avoid the harsher more uncomfortable, yet unavoidable realities of life. To be sure, suffering is both mysterious and dangerous and quickly brings us to the edge of the abyss - the place where our own personal knowledge is no longer useful. Suffering can and does lead to tragedy; suffering also leads to beauty and a more profound appreciation of happiness. The kind of suffering Wilde speaks about has no quick-fix. It is, for him, an unavoidable life or death struggle.

From Sorrow to Humility

Suffering and sorrow are companions. When we stand face to face with our own suffering we begin to realize that our lives are not as we assumed them to be. Our image of we we are as individual's implodes. Our identity begins to crumble. And we begin to feel a pervasive sense of sorrow. Wilde believed that, "sorrow is the most sensitive thing of all things created... There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought to which sorrow does not vibrate in terrible and exquisite pulsation." At the same time Wilde concludes that, "Where there is sorrow there is holy ground." This holy ground is the place of the soul, that aspect of us that seeks the eternal and the universal.

What is a possible way out of a profound sense of sorrow? For Wilde the answer is clear:

There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility... It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development.

Embracing humility is a fundamental and necessary act of individualism. In other words, humility can be a pathway of discovery along which we seek to rediscover ourselves or as Wilde puts it to, "seek a fresh mode of self-realization." Embracing humility in our lives encourages us to become more authentic in life. In another sense, humility provides a way to overcome our own social and cultural conditioning in order to seek out life on new ground. It is not a means to become bitter or to separate ourselves from society, but it is a critical means to seek equilbrium with it. Humility makes us keenly aware of our weaknesses in order to find a renewed and deeper sense of strength.

Seeking Individualism

If I may not find its secret within myself, I shall never find it; if I have not got it already, it will never come to me

Ultimately each one of us is alone. By this I mean that the responsibility for creating meaning and purpose in our lives is something we can only do for ourselves. While we may have mentors and friends in our lives that open us to new possibilities, explore the cultural symbols of our social systems, the journey toward a fresh mode of self-realization is an interior one. This does not mean that an individual must remove themselves from society, but it does mean they must go inside themselves in order to re-create themselves.

Wilde emphasized his belief that he could not achieve a fresh-mode of self-realization through bitterness toward the world: "I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me." At the same time he emphasized that he could also not achieve a fresh mode of self-realization by being immersed in the external signs and symbols of his time. In other words, cultural symbols and traditions were of no use to him unless the meaning he brought to those symbols were of his own creation. Self-realization, then, embraces humility as a means toward the re-creation of meaning and purpose in life.

And I really shall have no difficulty. When you really want love you will find it waiting for you.

A conversaton with our soul tends to clarify areas of our lives, especially the question of what we want in life. This clarification is a fundamentally important aspect of individualism.

Reanimating the World: Embracing the Mystical in Life

For some reason, and the reasons are not important, we have a tendency toward quantifying our lives by the way of information and knowledge. This, to some, is seen as being a practical and sufficient orientation to life. Yet is it possible that information and knowledge, no matter how articulate and reasonable, are both impractical and insufficient?

Of course they are insufficient. It may be that embracing the mysterious is the most practical orientation to life. Life is mysterious and this is the place our soul demands our presence. For some, this may not even be a choice they have to make - it is a demand. It is not always a comfortable place to be sure, but it is an essential place.

Still, I am conscious now that behind all this beauty, satisfying though it may be, there is some spirit hidden of which the painted forms and shapes are but modes of manifestation, and it is with this spirit that I desire to become in harmony. I have grown tired of the articulate utterances of men and things. The Mystical in Art, the Mystical in Life, the Mystical in Nature this is what I am looking for. It is absolutely necessary for me to find it somewhere.

Learning to Suffer / Suffering to Learn

Suffering and learning are closely related. That is not to say that one must suffer in order to learn, however, human suffering is a potent force in learning. One of the challenges in exploring human suffering is to find a meaningful way to explore it. The territory is dangerous and frought with peril. But our culture has adopted of presenting suffering as a form of entertainment or news broadcast. Modern culture turns suffering into a commercial, an armchair abstraction, and in doing so deingrates the experience to a fleeting consideration. It may in fact be entirely possible that our social and technological systems designed to better society as a whole are in fact a source and cause of massive suffering.

In exploring accounts such as Oscar Wilde we are brought into closer proximity to the fundamental importance and necessity of suffering in the human experience. It is an account that may inspire us in our own quest for a renewed sense of self-realization. Wilde's expression of suffering follow a similar path to the more horrific experiences of Viktor Frankl:

Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. ... Such [people] are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere [people are] confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through [their] own suffering.

In this sense, suffering is ultimately a source of hope.


  1. Oscar Wilde
  2. De Profundis
  3. Viktor Frankl
  4. Suffering
  5. Learning to Suffer
  6. Suffering to Learn

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Another reference for you, an alternative school system article,


This is a wonderful post. It's so rare that people talk of or even write of the small failures that cause a ruin like Oscar Wilde did.

Catholics speak of the transformational power of suffering to reveal what really matters and who we really are. For Christians who believe, suffering is a universal experience, the power of the cross is that Jesus suffered as do they, yet transformed death into life.

I agree with Wilde that we need a certain amount of suffering and that growth pains and change of person come in a moulting of old paradigmes we are attached to, which can be painful, or sometimes, natural as breathing. Who can predict which for which time?

In the book, Cry, My Beloved Country, the pastor Mb... says that suffering is better than fear because fear is a journey and suffering at least is an arrival. When you are suffering, one part is complete and a pivot to a new direction is possible.

If you haven't already read it, the book A General Theory of Love talks about plasticity of learning and memory, and in part limbic resonance which questions the dominent asssumption that each person can exist as a strong self-determinant island.

Also, do you know of that independantly analyzes public schools?

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