The Art of Suffering Well in BJJ

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – Albert Camus

Plateaus and seemingly insurmountable walls are legion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So many of us labor under some peripheral curse of monotony and malaise on the mats (perhaps even more so off of them). A restless boredom begins to fester inside of us:

“In all the squalid zoo of vices, one is even uglier and fouler than the rest…I speak of Boredom which with ready tears dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.” – Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

Mental exhaustion compounds our physical fatigue. An army of excuses begin to gather strength. Frustrations build to a fever pitch. Quitting seems not only practical, but wise. It’s no wonder so many abandon BJJ after barely a year in. I certainly did my first attempt. 

Albert Camus on Suffering

While I’m not much of a fan of French Existentialism with its bleak, often myopic exhortations on life (give me Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky or Jaspers instead), Albert Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is surprisingly full of wisdom toward suffering. Sisyphus, that ancient icon of eternal torment, embodies Camus’ views on existence itself:

But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well…Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Interestingly enough, Camus demands a kind of meaning through suffering in The Myth of Sisyphus though he insists elsewhere that existence is summarily bereft of it. As a result, his famous essay becomes more of an aesthetic argument than a philosophical one:

“It is as an artist that Camus now makes his case for acceptance of tragedy, the consciousness of absurdity, and a life of sensuous vitality. ” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Regardless, Camus argues that it’s not our fleeting victories or failures that define us, but simply and profoundly our ability to struggle, to endure. In fact, we ought to accept the inherent and unavoidable suffering that life entails with good cheer and dignity according to him.

This congenial attitude toward suffering applies to our time on the BJJ mats as well. Days, weeks even months may go by with little relief from failure and frustration. We are met with defeat time and time again. However, therein lies a sage truth to what BJJ offers so many of us on an existential level. Rather than run from suffering we try to embrace it. Perhaps, Longfellow puts it even more succinctly in the last lines of A Psalm of Life:

Let us, then, be up and doing,   
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing   
Learn to
labor and to wait.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life

Viktor Frankl on Suffering

To take it a generous step further and away from the absurdity that Camus also maintained was inherent to life, there can be tremendous meaning in suffering. In Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl recounts in tragic detail the unimaginable horrors he endured in the Holocaust:

“Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths…The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

However, unlike Camus, Frankl’s suffering emboldened his sense of meaning and hope:

“…I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost…It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Thankfully, most of us live reasonably pleasant lives far removed from the many obvious calamities and horrors of the world. Still, modern life is rife with its own bizarre, neurotic trials and tribulations. Thoreau says it best:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That particular quote seems telling now more than ever as the suicide rate skyrockets here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Loneliness, isolation and rage are the pandemics of our day and age with addiction right at their heels.

BJJ offers us some definite hope in combatting these ills. Provided we stay the course and do so without bitterness or regret, a quiet, controlled toughening takes place inside of us on the mats that we are rarely afforded in modern adulthood. This toughening develops into a kind of stoic, good-natured resolve applicable to so many other aspects of our lives off the mats.

I’m certainly not arguing that BJJ is some panacea for all that assails us. However, alongside the deep camaraderie many of us are hard-pressed to find elsewhere, the determination and joy that arises within us when training even amidst so much Sisyphean failure and fatigue suggest that BJJ offers us something vital sorely missing from our often tedious, sedentary lives. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves and to those in our stead to suffer well on and off the mats:

“What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Suffering Well in BJJ

  1. I really needed to read this. Thank you. I’ve hit a hard wall with my training over the last few months. I’ve only read Camus’ The Stranger and wasn’t too into it. His essay on Sisyphus sounds awesome. Man’s Search For Meaning is high on my reading list.

    1. For sure. I highly recommend Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. It’s one of the few reads that has the potential to be life-changing…

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