Photo: Vincent Nicolas on Unsplash

Subverting Suffering: Reducing Suffering’s Power Over Us

“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”

-Uncle Iroh

Navigating life is difficult. As we start out our own journey, we realize that we’ve been given a map with no legend and no compass. It is our responsibility to fill out the map as we go through life.

Invariably, we have to make choices as we explore the world around us. Some choices will be good, more of them will be bad. A decent chunk of our bad choices will lead us to suffer. When we first encounter suffering we will feel pain and hesitation.

We’ve been taught to avoid suffering from a young age. It’s reflected in the advertisements we see, the messages we get from friends and family, and in our brain’s hardwiring.

Few of us have dared to question if suffering has a purpose. It’s also unlikely that we’ve pondered ways to remove suffering’s power over us. If we want to win the war against suffering, we first need to follow Sun Tzu’s advice and come to know our enemy.

What Does it Mean to Suffer?

Most of us who have lived longer than a few years can point to a moment when we suffered, but when asked to define it, we hesitate. It seems so simple and everyone experiences suffering at some point right?

A mundane example of suffering is when we’re young and our ice cream falls to the ground. In my case, this involved a lot of crying and looking at my cone, hoping the ice cream would magically return.

In the ice cream example, we’ve lost a prized treat. When we’re younger this loss isn’t just a minor inconvenience. We feel this loss viscerally, partly because we don’t have enough context to frame the scale of our loss, and partly because we really wanted the ice cream.

I think we’d all agree that on some level, this experience is one of suffering for a young child. Bearing this example in mind, but ensuring we have a common definition to work from, I’m going to use the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition:

“Suffer — to sustain loss or damage”

Suffering, defined this way, is simple but useful. Working from this definition, it seems likely that almost everyone has experienced suffering at some point in their lives.

Although comical, the ice cream example highlights the key points of suffering well. To suffer, we must value something. If we don’t value the object that is damaged or lost, then the change that occurs wouldn’t phase us. Thus, we wouldn’t be able to claim a loss, since we never cared in the first place.

This implies that suffering occurs when we perceive a negative change to an object, person, memory, etc. which we value.

Why Suffering is Unavoidable

If suffering is caused by a negative change to something we care about, couldn’t we just avoid it altogether if we cared about nothing? Perhaps, if we were truly detached from everything, then suffering may cease to exist.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this option is realistic or desirable for a majority of us. Since we choose to live life in a way where we forge bonds, we can’t circumvent suffering through apathy.

If apathy isn’t a valid response, how about changing the systems we reside in? After all, a lot of human suffering is caused by arbitrary systems designed to benefit select groups. If we were to simply alter the systems, then suffering would cease to exist.

Although creating a utopia would be amazing, I doubt that we would be able to construct a utopia which would benefit everyone.

Utopias are a subjective ideal, which could change from person to person. Given the volatility of the idea, one person’s utopia could be another person’s dystopia. In this likely scenario, unnecessary suffering due to a system would still exist.

Even assuming there is some way to create a perfect utopia, I’d still argue there is necessary suffering which is a consequence of trying to live a fulfilled life through personal growth.

In the spirit of a still young 2019, let’s assume we’re unhappy with our appearance and decided to workout and eat better. I’m assuming at least one of us has done this before.

We’ve all read accounts of people who went from couch potato to Jason Bourne. A constant in their story is discovering how much they love working out. I think they are either freaks or liars.

Those of us who have committed to some type of workout routine and going to the gym can attest to the pain associated with this process. Typically, committing to our health involves getting up earlier than we’d like and contorting our bodies in ways which make us sore the next day.

Sure, there are wonderful neurochemicals like endorphins which let us power through. I’ll yield, the dopamine hit after a successful workout is nice. I’ll be damned if I don’t want to hit the snooze button and whine when my workout alarm goes off.

In truth, what we’re resisting isn’t working out itself, but the change in our life. Change is hard, scary, and unpleasant for many of us. We’re conditioned and hardwired for consistency. Our biological desire for consistency is why a large percentage of our daily actions are habits.

Since habits have predictable cues, actions, and rewards, our brains become accustomed to certain sensations, blood sugar levels, and ratios of neurotransmitters in the brain at any given point in time.

When we decide to grow, we often have to upset this balance. Personal growth is largely driven by the creation and maintenance of better habits.

Building better habits is a painful process because we have to impose discipline to get these things right. In doing so, we lose some freedom and instant gratification which causes us to suffer.

To put ourselves on a path to bettering ourselves we will suffer as we have to lose who we are to transform into the person we could become.

Maybe we’re not as ambitious or even content with our lives as is. We should be safe from suffering at this point right? Unfortunately, the answer is still no. Especially in the United States, our culture is still largely one of comparison.

If we’re standing still, then by default we’re falling behind. Most other people are hungry for something more in their life. Whether it’s more money, more fame, or more freedom is irrelevant, people are constantly seeking a positive change in their life.

Putting themselves through the process of change is the only hope they have to achieve a better life. Consequently, they will be slowly improving in at least one, if not several, areas of their life.

Since we often compare ourselves to our closest friends and colleagues, we’ll see that we’re stagnant and thus falling behind in comparison. Finishing last doesn’t feel good. Just ask Susy how she feels after coming in last during her track meet. It’s unlikely she’ll have too many positive emotions.

When we fall short in comparison to others it’s emotionally painful. Many of us don’t want to be left out or the low person on the totem pole. We may believe if we overcome the comparison trap then we’re immune to this type of pain. We would be wrong.

Humans are hardwired to seek progress, change, and growth. It’s one of the reasons we have been able to become as dominant a species as we have. I’m sure we can all think of a time we were stuck in a dead-end job where we weren’t growing or improving.

If we’re alike in any way, we don’t remember that job fondly. Eventually, we were driven to either negotiate for more responsibility in our current role or seek a new one entirely.

Once we started the process of improving our situation, we entered the growth loop, which as we established previously, leads to suffering. Even if we elected to stay in our dead-end job, we still damage our self-esteem. Thus, even through inaction, we encounter suffering.

Regardless of the path we choose, adapting or dying, suffering will invariably be on the path, lying in wait for us.

How do We Suffer Well

If suffering is waiting for us regardless of our choices, maybe numbing ourselves to the world is the best choice. After all, if we don’t care about anything then we can’t suffer, right?

Unfortunately, even this response doesn’t make us immune to suffering. At best, we delay the suffering for another day. At worse, we create a chain of events which will ultimately lead to one moment of monumental suffering.

Since we cannot escape suffering, our only choice is to change our relationship with it. A key part of transforming our relationship with suffering is to alter how we view it. We need a new point of view.

Reading Man’s Search for Meaning fundamentally changed how I viewed suffering. To summarize, this book is Viktor Frankl’s accounts of his time in concentration camps during the Holocaust and how he developed his psychological practice known as logotherapy.

He frames his philosophy in terms of a Nietize quote which best describes the view I’m trying to cultivate:

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”

Although we must suffer, we don’t have to do so in vain. Instead, if we can redirect our suffering towards a cause or reason, we can endure the inevitable suffering that accompanies life.

Suffering is not dictated by the rational part of our mind. It’s subjective, personal, and a consequence of our perspective. Since it’s a consequence of our perception and expectation, we can change the meaning we associate with unpleasant events.

To be clear, this won’t make the suffering go away, nor should it justify people being cruel to others and imposing harsh conditions on others because suffering is only in their minds.

But since suffering is an inevitability, we should learn how to live with it and use it well. Suffering well is enduring the invariable pain of striving towards something greater than ourselves. When viewed in this sense, we can view suffering less as an enemy and more as a companion on our journey.

Suffering may not be the best copilot but it does help to orient our existence. When we welcome suffering as part of the process of accomplishing our why we remove a great deal of its power over us. We’re no longer hesitant or afraid to act, and we’re not detoured when suffering emerges. Instead, suffering reminds us that we’re alive and fighting a good fight.

Accepting reality for what it is, in this case, the inevitability of suffering, liberates us to move towards the things we view as most important with fervor and haste.

Wrapping Up

Suffering is inevitable. If we decide to live and engage in the world in any recognizable fashion we will invariably encounter suffering. While we’re usually preoccupied with our own, it’s important to note those we care about are usually enduring some suffering of their own.

In one way, suffering is an equalizer. I’d argue that there is almost no one alive that hasn’t suffered in some way. Granted, their suffering may not have been as long-lived nor appear as severe, but that doesn’t diminish its impact on the person.

Aside from the empathy we gain from suffering, we also learn the valuable lesson of perspective. Suffering is inevitable, but it can become a companion in our journey instead of an antagonist.

When suffering rides in the car with us it serves to remind us that we’re alive and fighting the good fight. It also serves to keep us humble. Many of the causes we’re fighting for, whether it be our health or eradication of global poverty, are long battles with many people who have come before and will follow us.

Discovering our why will make our suffering more tolerable. Our suffering will have a reason which extends beyond us and the moment of decision. Knowing why we’re alive will let us advance the causes we believe in without fearing the suffering that accompanies trying to alter the world we live in.

Although we can’t oust suffering from our lives, we can tame it, make it yield to our will, and even turn it into an ally.

I’m a nonprofit professional who’s deeply passionate about effective learning, self improvement, and chasing my curiosity wherever it leads.