Photo by Rekha Garton.
“These are the times which try men’s souls.”
Thomas Paine wrote about how we often experience suffering from our circumstances in 1776. Not much has changed. Research now proves that people actually seek out physical suffering to push the limits of what is possible. However, we also seek out emotional and mental suffering just as much. Unfortunately, those often don’t deliver the benefit of growth physical suffering can provide.
The seduction suffering offers us is a promise we are better for having experienced it. The catch is that we only find that promise fulfilled on the other side of suffering – not while we are in it.
Suffering is a Choice
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Psychology teaches us that all of our circumstances are inherently neutral. The only meaning they have is the one we assign to them. That meaning is always seen through the lens of our own perspective and experience. We certainly have a right to feel the way we do. Yet research also shows that when we assign our happiness and fulfillment to our circumstances, we inevitably are disappointed. The choice to suffer is means we turn our true power over to something/someone other than ourselves, hoping they will make us happy.
The alternative is to recognize the cause of our pain is not under our control, even though our perspective absolutely is. When we stop resisting the reality of our circumstances, and take real, solution-focused action, suffering falls away and its gifts are revealed.
Why We Love Suffering
Suffering means “to be forced to endure prolonged pain and discomfort”. If you have unsuccessfully tried to change something about yourself, another person or the world, and can’t accept it has not changed, then you are suffering. Your focus is on the object of your pain, and where we focus, we flourish. Suffering, when nurtured, grows.
We Want Power
One reason we choose to suffer is there is an illusion that our suffering provides us with protection from future harm. In fact, our choice to prolong our agony; staring at it, discussing it endlessly, obsessing over it, and reinforcing its awfulness; only serves to strengthen its hold on us. In trying to exert power, we lose it.
We Crave Martyrdom
Born from the idea that we can atone for our sins, or even the sins of others through our own pain, we use suffering as a bargaining tool. If others witness and applaud our suffering as good and righteous, then so much the better.
We Delight in Playing the Victim
If we are hapless victims of our circumstances, then we are absolved of any responsibility for lifting ourselves out of it. This provides a fiendishly elegant opportunity to whine, complain, assign blame to others, and generally do nothing about a solution, lest we fail.
We Don’t Embrace our True Power
The source of our power – our real power – is within us. While we may occasionally change someone else’s mind, or alter our circumstances, this almost never happens until we change our own minds first about what is possible. Our power is in our ability to frame and reframe our perspective and our choices. Even in the most horrifying situations, we can choose to be at peace, and then take appropriate action towards change.
The Gifts of Our Suffering
Within every painful experience is an opportunity to:
Know something more about ourselves
Become stronger and more resilient
Learn new skills and talents
Forge fresh, or deeper, relationships
Understand our world more clearly
Love what it is to be fully human
As Rumi famously says:
“The broken places are where the light gets in.”
Accepting things are not always they way we would like them to be, but rather exactly as they are, is the antidote to suffering. That is how we take our pain, using it for our own good, and the good of those we care about.