You’ve heard this before, right? Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional? It’s a common quote, and a topic I have been mulling over so much that I really, really need to write about it.
Because here’s the thing: Suffering is romanticised. More than I think most of us realize. I see it and hear it every single day. This glorification of suffering isn’t limited to any particular age, race, or gender, but it’s pretty popular with us “older” folks and it has a special flavor for women.
What Am I Talking About?
Think about the last time you heard someone going on about their job, their commute, their kids, their mooching cousin or their bad back?
Chances are, you’ve heard plenty of all of it, participated in it and perhaps done a good bit of it yourself. It’s okay, we all have.
Pay Attention To How People Respond To The Story Of Suffering
In fact, it might even seem that when someone is complaining about their two hour commute, 60 hour workweek and complete lack of self-care that there is an underlying sense of pride. And, there is often some admiration on the part of those being regaled with stories of late-night meetings, skipped meals, two hours of sleep and all this while bringing kids to afterschool activities and shuttling the in-laws to doctor appointments.
Sometimes, suffering is a competitive sport. He or she who suffers the most, wins.
In other words, the busier and more overworked you are, the more bullshit you have to deal with and the less time you have to take care of yourself, the better person you are.
That’s one aspect of the problem. There’s more to it, but I’m keeping it general in this post.
Where Does It Come From?
Before we delve further into this myth that suffering equates goodness, let’s look at where this belief system (and it is a belief system) comes from.
No surprise, it’s roots are in religion. Specifically, Christianity, and more specifically, Puritanism.
I recently found myself at a tattoo parlor (big surprise) and in an animated conversation with the artist. He referred to the belief as “Calvanistic.” I hadn’t heard this term before, but ironically I had been researching John Calvin, father of Puritanism not two weeks before this conversation.
Calvin’s brand of religious fanaticism insisted that this earthly life should be spent working hard, keeping your head down and embracing suffering, discomfort, and discipline.
His rules and interpretations were harsh, to say the least. Severe punishments were bestowed upon anyone who questioned him or strayed off the path. These punishments were public, harsh and even deadly. He had no qualms with putting someone, even a child, to death if they violated the rules and guidelines he set.
Eventually the Puritans fled Europe seeking freedom to practice their extreme brand of religion. The new world proved to be an ideal place to do so. There was much work to be done, and no one to stand up to their harsh, punitive and often barbaric practices.
Hard work was valued above all else. Selflessness and service were held in high regard. Not a problem, but it didn’t stop there. Enduring discomfort, sorrow and even humiliation were seen as virtuous. Laughter was frowned upon. Sex was dirty and solely for the purpose of procreation. Music was taboo and dancing was prohibited.
Those people who seemed to be having fun or enjoying life were suspect. Lazy and sinful at best, dangerous and downright evil at worst.
Life was to be endured. Your reward was in heaven (If you were lucky.) The harder you worked, struggled and sacrificed, the more likely you would be to reap this reward.
It was an effective tool for control and much of our country was built with this belief system.
The problem is, suffering does not bring about the reward that was promised. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, ask yourself if your creator (if you believe in one) really put you on this earth to suffer? I’m not bashing Christianity by the way. The Puritans were radical, extreme and not well-liked, by other Christians, which is why they came to this country in the first place. What many people don’t realize is just how much their belief systems are ingrained in our society.
Here’s the thing: Even among those who don’t subscribe to the religious aspect of this Puritan belief system still subscribe to the underlying value that if you work hard and struggle and suffer, you are ultimately a better person than the guy next door who seems to move through life more freely and easily and takes time to smell the roses.
THAT GUY. The one who barely works 40 hours a week. That guy who seems to keep going on vacations. The guy who sleeps in on the weekends when he could be Getting Shit Done.
The woman who lounges around in the afternoons while her kids are at school…reading a book and taking unhurried coffee breaks. Who does she think she is? Her floors are in need of washing and her kids don’t do anything after school but play outside. What the hell is wrong with these people?
(I know, I know. I just used stereotypical gender roles to illustrate this. I’m sorry and I have no real excuse for my laziness, it’s worth noting though, that the people who tend to value suffering the most are generally wedged tightly in their traditional roles as well)
They must be LAZY.
Same thing, right?
There it is. The subtle but very present underlying belief that people who have too much downtime and are happy about it must be lazy.
The simmering resentment for the person who seems content and isn’t striving, struggling, overwhelmed with busy work or dealing with All The Bullshit.
There is something wrong with those people, right? They are not doing life the way it should be done. They have too much time on their hands (Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right?)
So here’s where I’m coming from:
Suffering does not make you a better person. It doesn’t make you a more worthy person. It isn’t particularly virtuous. It doesn’t prove anything. It doesn’t mean you love your family more, or that you are more dedicated to your partner or children.
It’s totally unnecessary.
Now, I realize that shit happens. We all get streaks of SHTF and WTF and FML. Yeah?
Health problems happen. Fights, breakups, financial loss, job stress and times when family obligations are intense. During these times, we will surely suffer if we don’t take care of ourselves.
Self-care, I believe is one of the key factors that separates Going Through Some Shit or even Hard Work and Sacrifice from suffering.
Here’s the thing, and it might not sit well with you.
Sometimes, we get addicted to the suffering. The complaining. The commiserating. The approval that suffering seems to bring. The downward spiral. The “See? This is the kind of shit that happens when I try to do the right thing.” Or “I can’t catch a break.” Or, “Murphy’s Law strikes again.”
Suffering Becomes A Badge Of Honor
The problem is that suffering can wind its way into our identity. It becomes a part of who we are. When this happens, it not only becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but even worse, it’s so comfortable, so familiar that we aren’t able to enjoy life, even when Shit Is Going Well. Even when we do Catch A Break. We are geared for the suffering, and in the absence of actual shit going down, we will manufacture suffering so we can stay busy and have Shit To Bitch About.
This is why, even when we have the time and the means and the green light from others, we still don’t take care of ourselves. When given the choice between a spa day or a vacation or a night out with friends, we’ll decline the opportunity in favor of more work, more obligations or even cleaning up someone else’s mess or picking up someone else’s slack.
And we’ll make sure everyone knows it. And, worse yet, make the person who DID take that vacation feel bad about doing so.
But I Don’t Do That!
If you’re reading this right now, you might be thinking that this post doesn’t apply to you. Good! But I bet it applies to someone you know. And chances are that someone is your biggest opposition when it comes to living your dreams, pursuing your passions or Doing Something Different.
Keep an eye out for these guys, okay. Keep them in your prayers. Send them Love and Light. But don’t, under any circumstances, let them Rain on Your Parade or stop you from having fun, living life and taking a fucking day off.
Suffering is not what we’re here for. We are here to enjoy life and love each other. I believe this with every fiber of my being. Life is not supposed to be hard. We are not supposed to be busy every single day. We are not supposed to work ourselves into the ground and stretch ourselves so thin we snap. We are supposed to rest, play and love. We are supposed to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We aren’t meant to marinate in guilt, shame and “shoulds.”
If you are struggling with suffering, the first step is to Cut Yourself Some Slack. Suffering is learned behavior. You really can let it go, you just have to be willing to take the first step.
So, let me know what you think. Do you disagree? Do you think suffering is inevitable? Do you believe that people who suffer are more virtuous or deserving of a good life? Leave me a comment!
Thanks for stopping by! Please leave me a comment, I would love to get to know you better! And if you think someone else could benefit from this, give it a share.
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