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Are You Suffering For All The Wrong Reasons?

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Dear E & V,

I hate seeing you in pain.

When I was struggling with my career, your grandfather called me up just to talk. He told me that when you see your child struggling with pain, you feel it in the pit of your stomach.

And he’s right.

You’ll learn one day if you ever have kids that there’s nothing worse for a parent than to watch their child struggle with the pain of being sick, or hitting their head, or being let down.

Seeing someone suffer, on the other hand, is a little more complex.

While I still don’t want to see you (or anyone) suffer, the fact is pain and suffering are two very different beasts. One can be preventable, the other can not.

Pain is physical and emotional and uncontrollable. You can’t choose when pain will come. Suffering is mental and controllable. Given the right tools and attitude, you can choose whether you suffer or not.

Let me illustrate with a couple examples.

It’s common these days for someone — like a politician or general asshole — to say something stupid or ignorant. It might cause you emotional pain because it’s someone you love, or it’s a politician making a hurtful comment about your group.

Pain is temporary, it WILL go away.

Suffering is when you start to internalize that pain and allow it to go beyond its natural expiration point. You start calling for blood on social media, you talk about how hurtful the comment is to everybody you meet, you start getting anxious or angry as you seek payback on the offender. You start to get stressed out at the pain that the person caused you.

You are the only one making yourself suffer. So you are the only one that can stop it.

Now let’s imagine you just had surgery on your knee.

The pain is very real. You have a constant dull throbbing pain, and if you step on it too hard it feels like someone is driving a hot ice pick into it. But eventually your body heals and the pain starts to subside.

Pain is temporary, it WILL go away.

Suffering is letting that pain control your life. It’s the thought that the pain will never end, that the pain will control you, that the pain will destroy your life. It’s using the pain as an excuse to not find a way to keep doing the things you love.

You are the only one making yourself suffer. So you are the only one that can stop it.

The practical advice for implementing that mindset will vary depending on your social, mental, and emotional strengths. Buddhism and Stoicism both provide good practical frameworks for dealing with suffering.

For instance, one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is: “Suffering ceases with the cessation of craving” . I take this to mean that suffering ceases when you stop craving to be free of pain. Pain is a part of life, and we suffer when we try to run away from it or make it stop versus just accepting it.

Seneca, a famous Stoic philosopher says: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Again, suffering is mental. If you realize that then you can realize your power to stop your suffering.

In my own experience, I’ve found the following to be helpful in preventing or stopping my own suffering:

  • I remind myself that pain is only temporary, it will end eventually.
  • I spend time outside on a nice day and appreciate everything I have going well for me.
  • I work on making myself a better person by exercising or learning a new skill. Doing something physical is important because it keeps you from overthinking about your pain.

The worst thing you can do is to use your pain as an excuse to stay inside and wallow in your own self-pity. Not only will that make your suffering worse, but it’s a pretty shitty way to live life.

I know you’re strong enough to get through anything. Hopefully this letter will help you realize that.

Love,

Dad

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Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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