Last week, we tackled a bitter truth that's also a strange dichotomy: Pain is an essential part of humanity, and suffering is part of the road to happiness. The basic argument is that pain is built into the lives we lead, and it's even an essential part of how the body works. We as a society seek ways to avoid that pain and the suffering that comes along with it, all in the name of the search for happiness. However, I'm here to suggest that the real path to personal happiness and growth isn't around your pain, but through it. Suffering serves as a catalyst to create new paths to happiness, if you allow it be.
After all, think of all the energy that goes into those avoidance strategies we talked about. Imagine how much more time you would have for reading or socializing or exercising or anything else that brings you joy if you didn't spend it seeking ways to avoid the pain and suffering that life can throw your way. This week, we're going to lay out a simple strategy to get us started and look at a particular example.
Where to Begin
What we can do is start with reality. That means accepting that life is exactly as it is presenting itself to you and to me. We need to not fall into denial or wishful thinking. When we accept that life is how it is, in this moment, then we can begin to look at cause and effect. That, in turn, will lead to the possibilities that are available to help us handle life.
Let's Look at This Through the Lens of a Specific Example
“Under the circumstances, we are doing well.” My friend who went through chemotherapy used this as her motto. It was her way of recognizing that there were good things in her life regardless of what was happening. She accepted life as it was by looking at her situation, taking an inventory of all that she could appreciate, and finding measures of joy.
Lesson number one: It's about Perspective. It is all about perspective, for each of us. Certainly bad is bad. There is no way to make a tragedy or a crisis less of a painful event. What we can do is make it worse on ourselves or make it easier to bear based on the perspective we take.
Lesson number two: Make pain your friend, or at least your ally. If you understand pain is there and it has a reason, the energy you once put into avoiding it can now go into finding a way to change your life. This applies to physical and emotional suffering.
My friend had many painful times during her treatment. She suffered in body, mind and spirit. There were days when she was angry and resentful. She would ask, “Why me?” At those times, she found solace in her friends. She would then choose to look at it from the other direction, asking “Why not me?” and “What good can I find in this situation? How can I live to the fullest even in this circumstance?”
These are questions we each have to answer for ourselves. Some find a new direction in religion, activism to change the world, family, children, caring for aging parents, or caring for the world one person at a time. Some turn to renewed personal growth. Whatever the response, they all have one thing in common: they are new ways to find happiness that you may not have encountered had you spent all that energy avoiding.
There is no way to avoid suffering in life, and we don't receive an instruction manual at birth on how to successfully complete this thing called life. There are many people who think they have it all together, and many religions that offer a path, but you have to actively decide what is right for you.
One last thing to remember, nothing lasts forever. It may feel like it will, but it does not. Joy does not last forever, and neither does suffering. One thing is for sure though: As we travel the path of life, we can learn things we never knew, and our humanity will grow.