Suffering…is the sense that things should be other than they are. Its antidote is Acceptance.Wu Hsin
The insight that I have found to be the most self-helpful over the last 12 months comes from a book called The Road Less Traveled, by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. In words reminiscent of the Buddha, Peck opens with the statement: “Life is difficult.” When we accept this truth, no longer clinging to the belief that “life should be easy”, life ceases to be difficult.
This is one of those ideas that is simple to understand but far harder to reconcile with. Namely, that we suffer, not because of objective misfortune but as a result of wanting things to be different than they are. We experience unbearable heartache when we are betrayed by a loved one, as though this were some “unique kind of affliction” that has been visited upon us. And feel excruciating envy when we see somebody richer, more beautiful or more successful than us, in spite of the fact that nobody ever promised us that life would be fair.
HOLDING ONTO SUFFERING
When you fight something, you’re tied to it forever. As long as you’re fighting it, you’re giving it power.Anthony de Mello
The two most painful experiences of my life came in quick succession, at the age of 25. First, came earth-shattering heartbreak as my first proper relationship came to an end. And second, and far more devastatingly, came the sudden death of my father, a month later. These events were so profoundly painful to me that I remember howling from the depth of my being when I received the news. As far as I know, there is no way to avoid experiencing this intense level of suffering. It is part of the human condition.
What I didn’t understand then, is that I needed to acknowledge, accept and sit with the pain for as long as it lasted. To grieve. And then I needed to let it go. I didn’t know that I could trust in the age-old wisdom that time is a healer. Instead, I held on so tightly to my outrage at the injustice, that suffering became my identity. And as a result, a decade of eating disorders kept me in a hell of my own creation. In Buddhism, they call this the second arrow. The first arrow causes the initial wound and is outside of our control. The second, we inflict on ourselves. It is the mental anguish we suffer believing that this adversity should not have happened.
Pema Chödrön says, “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…”
YOU’RE ON TEAM HUMAN
The first thing suffering does is introduce you to yourself. The second thing it does is give you empathy for the suffering of others. And the third thing it does is lift you upward towards some sense of transcendence and service.David Brooks
Life is difficult. Heart break, loss, betrayal, illness and injury all hurt badly enough without believing that we are experiencing something exquisitely engineered to exact the most imaginable torment possible on us. And that we are alone in our suffering.
I am shocked at how many of the young women I speak to are struggling with eating disorders, specifically bulimia. Many of them have suffered far more than I ever did. And at how many men are hurting too. In relationships full of resentment, derailed by fierce self-criticism or trapped by an inability to express their more complicated emotions. It is only when we ourselves have suffered that we can offer comfort and support to others. And it is in the process of listening and empathising that our relationships become deeper and richer. If we can just take a step back and realise that the one thing we all share is that if we choose to engage with life, we’re going to get hurt and we’re going to get hurt badly. There’s no way around that.
THE TYRANNY OF THE EVERYDAY
It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.Al Franken
Whenever I write, I have a tendency to get really heavy! I’m sorry about that. I think it’s because I find the process so therapeutic. (I recommend that you try it.)
Let’s go back to the start. “Life is difficult”. Accepting this truth, acknowledging that we are not alone and alchemising our pain into support and empathy for others helps with life’s big T traumas but also with the trials of everyday life. Like today, when there was no running water in our apartment, or yesterday when my website stopped working or the day before when I was watching videos of my little nephew embarking on his first adventures on two feet, choking up that because of travel restrictions, I am missing out on so much. These things are not ideal but as soon as I remember that life isn’t supposed to be easy, the waves of injustice and righteous indignation pass and I can get back on with whatever it is I am supposed to be doing.
My favourite example is one I think we can all relate to. It’s the moment when you lean your bicycle up against a wall and just as you turn your back, it topples noisily to the ground. In a flash of annoyance you shake your fist at the sky. Would you not be more concerned if the laws of gravity had taken a temporary hiatus and your bike had mysteriously hovered and stayed upright? It’s fighting with reality that is the titanic waste of time and energy. And we don’t have a minute to lose ❤️
Thank you. I need to step out of the bonfire of my inner dialogue. Stand back and absorb it, recognise it & walk away from it.
What a beautiful encapsulation.
Great article Abi! Too often we focus on problem/pain which prevents us from moving forward. Your words are a good reminder that these things shape us into who we are and we can move forward.
Thank you so much Stuart. I agree. Letting go is the killer app when it feels right to do so.
You’ve the tendency to send thoughts of inspiration just in the exact moment they are needed.
Thank you! I hope that there is something useful in there for you! I feel like these themes are fairly timeless.
Well said Abi.
I took a course from Pema Chodron that helped me to learn to handle my emotions better.
Your blog post reminded me that it is an ongoing process and I do well to revisit the course materials.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
All the best to you.
Wow. She’s amazing. I don’t know how one person can have so much wisdom. I think you’re right. Re-visiting ideas that help to make sense of things is pretty much an ongoing process.
Love this article, good reminder for myself today… Main takeaways for me:
“Life is difficult”
“Accepting this truth”
“It’s fighting with reality that is the titanic waste of time and energy”
Thank you Jorge. I think you have it! But I should also have added that self-compassion is crucial.