I have two sticky notes on my desk, and both remind me, in bright, lime-green emphasis of things I’m liable to easily and repeatedly forget.
Both reminders are things my coach has said to me over the years we’ve worked together, and both are as true today as they have ever been.
“Things are moving forward in spite of you.”
“The suffering is optional.”
While they’re separate notes from separate conversations, they work really well together. Because my life is moving forward, despite the way I may find myself feeling about it in any given moment—regardless of my frustrations, impatience, expectations and discomfort. And my suffering has little to no impact on how it’s going, apart from making my experience of life harder and more miserable than it needs to be.
Same as yours.
I’m not suggesting that suffering isn’t real, or even that some suffering isn’t a necessary requirement of living, because that would be an oblivious and ignorant statement, as well as a foolish and foolhardy approach to life.
I am suggesting, however, that there are two kinds of suffering in the human experience, and only one of them is mandatory. The first one, the unavoidable suffering, is the physical or mental anguish we experience when something difficult or painful, like when you stub your toe in the middle of the night, or lose someone you love.
The second kind of suffering is made up of all the stories we tell ourselves (and anyone else who’ll listen) about what happened, or what might happen. The stories about what it means about us, about them, about Justice! and about The World! and Life!
This second kind of suffering is the discretional variety. It’s voluntary, as opposed to requisite in life. It includes, but is not limited to: judgments, righteousness, resentment, embarrassment, insecurity, worry, anxiety, etc.
I think we employ the second kind of suffering in an effort to mitigate the first. As though our rumination and mental discomfort will somehow alleviate pain or shield us from bad things happening, period.
After forty years of investing significant energy into the second kind of suffering, I feel fairly confident in saying that I don’t think it works.
As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
All that worrying and fretting: is it helping? I mean, if it is, then by all means, carry on, soldier. But, if it isn’t, then maybe it might be worth allowing life to happen as it will (because it will anyway), and reserve your suffering for when it’s actually called for, like when you stub your toe in the middle of the night, or lose someone you love, or get passed over for an opportunity you really wanted.
Because these things really do hurt. Stubbing your toe, like I did just this very morning? Geez, does that ever hurt. Like a motherfather. Just for the record, my favourite expressions of profanity arise in situations like these, when cursing vehemently feels like it is really doing something to alleviate my pain and suffering.
All the worrying in the world isn’t going to stop me from sometimes stubbing my toe, or experiencing frustrations, obstacles, losses and disappointments in my life. It doesn’t make them any easier to accept, either. I’m not better at suffering because I’ve been practicing.
As a fellow Hufflepuff, Newt Scamander, said, “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”
Your life is going to happen as it will, and all your pre-emptive and chronic suffering will not win you any trophies or badges of honour. Even if they did, why would you want them? Imagine that sad display case: “And right here is where I keep all the testaments to my misery.”
My successes, victories and triumphs are not purchased through my suffering, and neither are yours. We are not martyrs, unless we choose to be. Why would we ever choose to be?
Your life is moving forward in spite of you. The suffering is optional.
You don’t get to choose everything that will happen in life, but you do get to choose how much you will suffer needlessly.
I hope you choose well.