Suffering is defined as the experience of pain, illness or injury. To suffer basically means to become worse off because of being negatively affected by something. Whether it is a difficult husband, an unloving parent, an illness, an economic difficulty, or a barking dog- we suffer when we end up worse off because of the things that happen to us.
Worse off than what though? Worse off than what we were before? Worse off than the never ending perfection that life should be? Worse off because of the fantasy in our heads of how people should act? Worse off than the way our lives should turn out? The problem with this logic is that it is a fairly tale. Yes, I used that word fairly intentionally. Believing that life should be fair, should be how we want it to be, is the root of human misery.
When I look back on how much I have suffered because people, events, my own body and life situations were not how I wanted them to be, I can only laugh. It is not so much a joy-filled laugh. Instead, I suppose I am laughing at my own reactions.
One thing that every human being has in common, from Brad Pitt all the way to the guy who sits on the side of the freeway by my house- unfair things happen to all of us. The degree to which we suffer is always determined by the degree to which we think things are not fair.
Most of us end up worse off when difficult things happen. We go into stress mode. Our nervous systems take off into fight, flight or freeze. We resist what is. We can’t relax. We don’t know that there is an alternative way to be. When something bad feels like it is happening or going to happen- we resist it. We get frightened. We don’t feel safe. We try and push the fear away. “Get it out of here! I don’t like this! This feels terrible and I want it to change now! It is not fair!” This is what we are yelling on the inside. As a result, we end up worse off.
Some, for whatever reason, remain calm and accepting of the flow of life. Non-reactive and unsurprised by the fact that yes, shit happens. That life is unfair. That life is a series of events and situations that can always potentially cause us to end up worse off. The irony is that when we fully accept this- we suffer less.
A person can not become a shaman without first having become very ill and then found their way back to health. A person who has suffered deeply and then is able to find a practice or a methodology to help her or himself to not end up worse off every time difficult and unfair things happen, has mastered the art of living.
One thing is certain- things will keep happening (almost everyday) that challenge our ability to not end up worse off. The good news is that we will have continual opportunities to practice, learn and free ourselves from suffering every day. There will not be enough money sometimes. People will pass away. We will come across difficult people. We will not like our work. Dreams will not be fulfilled. We will experience illness. Someone will say something we do not like. We will feel sad, hurt, angry and anxious. Such is life. But we can choose to use our difficulties and life challenges to learn, grow and change or we can just keep on reacting and remain the same.
Do we chose to end up worse off every time life happens, every time our nervous system gets triggered just because difficult and unfair things happen? Just because we feel various unpleasant emotions? Or do we accept that all of this is a normal part of life and then begin the practice of learning how to accept life as it is rather than ending up worse off every time things are not how we want them to be?
Like my Great Uncle said, who was a holocaust survivor and never seemed worse off because of all he lost and experienced (he was known for never expressing self-pity or negativity about his life, and always loudly expressed that he was “doing great!” until he decided to “call it a day” when he died at the age of 96):
“I never expected that any of this should be any different anyways.”
I spent a good chunk of my life not understanding what he meant. As a result- I often ended up worse off.