Suffering less by changing situations or accepting them

Most of us suffer emotional pain daily. We may feel pain in our relationships, in our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, or in situations at work.

And when we suffer, we may act less than ideally. Our pain can cause us to say or do things we will regret, worsening our relationships and making those situations even more painful.

Some types of suffering are natural and hard to avoid, such as the suffering of the person whose parent passed away recently. But other types of suffering come from situations that are within our power to change.

By examining why we suffer in those situations we can change, we can try to suffer a bit less. We do need to realize that usually we cannot simply get rid of suffering.

Why we usually can’t eliminate one type of suffering without introducing another

When we can avoid painful situations at no cost, we normally do. So most of our suffering comes from painful situations that we cannot avoid without experiencing a different kind of pain.

The person who dreads seeing an old friend because he no longer enjoys spending time with his friend can choose not to see that friend anymore. On the surface, that might seem to eliminate his suffering. But it might also introduce a new kind of pain, such as guilt for abandoning an old friendship or sadness over not knowing how the rest of the old friend’s life will unfold. We can think of the new kind of suffering as “paying the price” for eliminating the old kind.

In romantic relationships, we might suffer from the pain of our partner acting in a way we don’t like. We might think about other potential partners who might not act that way, but who would still have all the wonderful attributes we love about our partner. Couldn’t we eliminate our suffering this pain by being with someone else?

In The Course of Love, the popular philosopher Alain de Botton warns not to expect any potential partner to be perfect. He writes:

Whoever we could meet would be radically imperfect: the stranger on the train, the old school acquaintance, the new friend online… Each of these, too, would be guaranteed to let us down.

That doesn’t preclude the existence of someone who would not make us suffer in the particular way that our partner does. But it does mean that choosing someone to be with, as de Botton writes, “is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure”.

In all of life, as in our relationships, we have two options to suffer a bit less. We can either choose a different kind of suffering—one that may be less painful—or we can accept our current suffering, trying to soften our pain with the knowledge that we consciously chose to suffer in this way.

How to suffer a bit less

The first way to suffer a bit less is to replace one kind of pain with a different, more bearable kind.

Someone who wants to be more fit might suffer from guilt when they have a snack or a beer. They could substitute their guilt with a different kind of pain, such as the pain of training for a marathon. If they started running four days a week to train for that marathon, they would burn many more calories and they might no longer feel guilty about having that snack or that beer. They would still suffer, just differently: they might have to get up early to run before work and their legs might be perpetually sore. But they might find this type of suffering more bearable than the guilt.

As another example, imagine we suffer through hours of traffic jams daily. We could substitute this pain for a different kind. For instance, we could choose to bike to work. We would then sometimes arrive sweaty from our physical exertion or wet from the rain. But we would avoid traffic jams. We could also choose to work at a different job, closer to home, but it might hurt to say goodbye to the work we do and to the colleagues we have now.

The second way to suffer a little bit less is to accept a particular type of pain.

When we face a painful situation that we could change, but don’t want to change, we can reduce our suffering by accepting our choice to suffer this way and by remembering why we suffer. We can tell ourselves, “This isn’t fun, but I chose to accept this, so it’s all right.”

Knowing that we have some control—that we could choose to suffer in a different way—can make our suffering more bearable.

Over time, as we examine painful situations and choose either to change them or to accept them, we might find that our suffering becomes less intense and that we can more often avoid making situations worse by acting out of pain.

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