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The Great Irony of Our Suffering

In an attempt to prevent suffering, our minds often create it.

Key points

  • In the modern world, we end up suffering more than we need to.
  • There is a great irony to our suffering that is helpful for us to understand.
  • Identifying when we are suffering and the source of suffering can help us to more skillfully address it.
Source: Doucefleur/iStock

As I discussed in my previous two posts, there is some suffering in life that is inherent to the human condition. "Level 1 Suffering" is necessary for our survival. It motivates us to avoid or rectify experiences that are threats to our well-being. In contrast, "Level 2 Suffering" occurs when our minds ruminate about negative events of the past or present or worry about the present and future.

My podcast coverage of this topic can be found here.

Level 2 Suffering is real suffering. That is, we really suffer when we ruminate about the negatives of the present or past or worry about the future. Worrying that something bad could happen creates the same suffering whether the imagined negative event is likely to happen in reality or not. For example, fearing Pennywise is under the bed creates a hair-tingling form of suffering even when the odds he is actually under the bed are, well, zero. Our minds create suffering within us because we react to "what if" scenarios as "what is" or "what will be" scenarios.

"Wish we could turn back time/to the good old days/when our momma sang us to sleep,/but now we're stressed out." — from the song "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots

What if we could wear a "sufferometer"?

Here's an ironic twist. If we were to wear a "sufferometer" that measured our suffering much like a Fitbit measures our steps, it would likely measure more suffering over time from worrying that a bad event might happen than the "bad" event would cause if it actually happened. As crazy as it might sound, we suffer more from worrying that we might suffer than from the actual event itself occurring. The catastrophes that we most fear are unlikely to happen in the first place. Moreover, even when things don't turn out well, we usually adapt rather quickly to what occurred and move on with our lives.

Source: MikeBrooks/MyImage

Let's say you have a big presentation for work in two weeks. In the illustration, at Time 1, you learn about the upcoming presentation and start worrying. Thoughts incessantly race through your mind for the two weeks leading up to it: What if I screw up? What if my boss doesn't like it? What if my colleagues think I am a phony? What if I become the butt of jokes? What if I got fired, and word spreads about my incompetence, and I never work again? Argh!

Your anxiety rises to a fever pitch the night before and the morning of the presentation. You feel as if you might have a panic attack! You muster your courage, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself, and deliver your presentation. While you are nervous throughout much of the presentation, you settle in and get through it. Whew! That wasn't too bad, was it? Your boss and colleagues thank you for the presentation, go back to their desks, and resume their work. Your anxiety level subsides, and you carry on with your life.

The anxiety that you experienced was real. Your "sufferometer" measured two weeks' worth of suffering until you completed your presentation. The suffering that you experienced prior to the presentation was, in total, significantly more than the suffering that the presentation actually caused. In this way, you suffered more from worrying that you might suffer.

What did the suffering accomplish? Was it necessary? Sure, a certain amount of stress and anxiety can motivate us to work hard and prepare. However, the amount of worry that we usually experience and the suffering that it causes tend to be disproportionate to the realities of the situation.

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
― Epictetus

What can we do about our suffering?

"I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me." — Bono, from the U2 song, "Rejoice"

Before we do anything about our suffering, we first must recognize when we are suffering. This might seem rather elementary, but sometimes we get so busy that we don't slow down enough to take inventory of how we are doing. Similarly, we can't treat a sprained ankle unless we first recognize that we are hurting.

"A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it." — quote of unknown origin often attributed to Albert Einstein

Thus, we need to slow down and periodically conduct "check-ins" with ourselves to gauge how we are doing. Are we tired? Hungry? Thirsty? In physical pain? Sad? Stressed? Once we detect a "disturbance in the Force," we are now in a position to determine how to address it.

Inspired by the works of the 8th-century Buddhist monk and philosopher Shantideva, in The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama describes how, when we find ourselves suffering from distress, we should ask ourselves, "Is there something that I can do about this?" If we can, then we direct our energies to addressing the challenging situation. However, if we determine that there's nothing we can do about it, we must realize that unproductive rumination or worrying is an additional source of suffering. From this perspective, we exacerbate our suffering by trying to avoid or deny the possibility of our suffering. Instead, we must move to acceptance of what is and do our best to cope with it.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.” ― Epictetus

Importantly, acceptance isn't the same as liking a negative situation. For example, we won't like the reality that there's a fire in our kitchen. However, we must accept the reality that there is a fire in our kitchen in order to do something about it.

This idea is also captured beautifully in the very popular "Serenity Prayer" by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is commonly quoted as:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Certainly, this is easier said than done. That said, to find greater levels of peace and joy in this journey of life, we must find ways to manage our suffering. Suffering will always be part of life, yet part of our life's work is to experience levels of emotion that fit the realities of our situations. I will be exploring this topic in greater depth in future blogs, so I hope you will join me!

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