Everywhere we look, the world we live in tells us it's our job to be happy, and that being happy is simple. Get rich quick! Lose weight without exercise, just buy our gadget! Find love with just a click! Popular culture suggests the only use for suffering is to have an excuse to drink wine and eat ice cream, then use the emotion to write another blockbuster movie or hit song, and move on.
I think we all know it's not that simple. Sure, the pursuit of happiness is important. It was even one of the driving forces behind the Declaration of Independence. However, it's not everything. I would suggest that in order to appreciate the happiness we have, suffering and pain are a crucial part of life as well – a part we tend to avoid.
Let's look at a painful truth for a moment. Life is suffering. Life brings many pains, disappointment and impossible tasks. We are threatened by the external world and all the dangers it presents us. We are even threatened by our bodies – while they are there to serve us and protect us, pain, anxiety and anger are built into the human body's very operation. They are essential warning signals to alert us to a threat, be it physical or emotional.
In order to bear the pain of life, we take palliative measures. There are five main ways we try to side step the pain so we don't have to feel it:
1. We use denial so we do not have to know how hard situations are. We refuse to see reality and pretend all is well. We tell ourselves stories to explain away what is happening, blame others or enter into harsh self-criticism.
2. We may use substances or activities to make us insensitive to what is happening – in essence, a physical denial. They influence our bodies and alter its chemistry. It invades our brain and distorts our thinking.
3. We run away to avoid our pain and overwhelm. We leave jobs, relationships, geographic locations in hope of finding relief from our pain.
4. We use substitute satisfactions to diminish reality. Fantasy is used to create illusion in contrast to reality. Television, movies, novels become the story we substitute for our life.
5. We develop new relationships in hope of escaping the hardships of life. The great downfall of this method is that we are never so vulnerable to suffering as when we love.
These are powerful ways to deflect our attention from what is happening in the here and now, by creating feelings to substitute for what we are feeling. These methods will bring temporary relief from hardship, suffering and pain but in the end they will compound the problem and multiply the pain.
So now what?
We don't need to avoid our suffering in the name of happiness and personal growth – I would suggest we need to embrace it.
We can turn our suffering from a dead end experience of victimhood to a pathway to growth. Any athlete will tell you that it takes long hours of practice, hard work and pain to develop their skills. The same is true with emotional healing and growth.
As children we need to avoid the pain we experience; as adults we need to meet our pain head on. To avoid as a child is to survive; to avoid as an adult is to prolong and compound our suffering. Physical pain needs to be investigated and used to discover the problem that exist in one’s body; emotional pain needs to be recognized for what it is: anger, depression or fear, so that it too can be treated. To not feel our emotions is to repeat them and reinforce the behavior patterns of a lifetime.
This is a lot to chew on, especially in a society where happiness is everywhere. Think on this for a while – how many of those avoidance patterns do you use? When do you use them? Do you have a favorite? Did you know you had a favorite before today?
Next week, we'll take some of this information and offer an example of how meeting your pain and suffering head on can help you grow.