Three Ways to Respond to Suffering

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Life is difficult, life is wonderful, or life is mixed: three ways of responding to suffering. Which one matches your outlook on life?

M Scott Peck begins The Road Less Travelled [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] by saying that “life is difficult”, and it helps to accept this. I think this is true — it wouldn’t be hard to come up with lots of examples — but not the whole story. We could also say that “life is wonderful” and come up with lots of examples.

It is tempting to choose one or the other. No doubt our inclination to the one we choose is based on our temperaments, current environment and prior experiences.

There are alternatives to choosing either one: we could say that life is mixed, that it has wonderful and difficult parts, or we could say that the judgement is wrong — or even that any judgement is wrong. (There are different reasons given for why the judgement is wrong. The three I am most familiar with are that it is arrogant to tell life how things should be, that we don’t know enough to make a judgement, and that making this judgement only leads to more suffering.)

These three positions — that life is difficult, life is wonderful and life is mixed (my preference being for the ‘life is mixed’ position — can have strengths and limitations in my view. The ‘life is difficult’ view can help us focus and settle down to working consistently to a valued end. It could also lead us to dull and grey coloured dutifulness. The ‘life is wonderful’ view alerts us to moments of bliss and ecstasy. It can also lead us to a brittle gaiety that won’t look at what we don’t want to see. The ‘life is mixed’ view can help us accept our situation and not be filled with futile resentments. It can also lead to stagnation and cynicism.

The position that ‘to make this judgement is wrong’ I find untenable because it is itself a judgement.

My desire is not to advocate or defend one position over another. What I want to do here is examine these three different approaches in relation to suffering. (This presumes that suffering is real and not some kind of illusion or delusion; that would be the subject of another post.)

Life is Difficult

Suffering is real, pretending otherwise is futile: so let’s deal with it.
This leads to questions of what is the best way to deal with it. I think this partly depends on the ‘kind’ of suffering. Headaches caused by stopping drinking coffee can be eliminated by drinking coffee. Various kinds of pain we feel can be blocked with pain killers. The anguish we feel on the unexpected death of a loved one or the end of a precious relationship is different again. Perhaps the way to respond to suffering is different according to the kind of suffering it is. In this way we can develop a repertoire for dealing with the different kinds of difficulties we encounter in life.

In the case of some suffering, we know the cause, and we can do something about it fairly easily — a trip to the dentist will fix the toothache (and taking pain killers in the meantime may be a good idea). Our emotional responses to life events can be embraced and expressed fully. In this way, we can gain understanding about our values and sense of emotional equilibrium. If it is a major crisis we respond to, then our emotions may be the fuel for devising a new way to live.

When we accept that life is difficult, then we can see how we avoid the stuff we don’t like. We will develop acute perception of our strategies like avoidance and numbness.

Life is Wonderful

Our focus shapes our experience — so focus on the positive!

To ‘look on the bright side’ acknowledges that there is a dark side. There is no need for the positive to be denial. It can be a choosing in full knowledge of how dark things are.

To emphasise the positive can release tremendous amounts of energy into hopeful and fruitful activity. It seems to me that most people are capable of more than they think, and that a more beautiful, just and enjoyable world is entirely possible.

To be engaged in the creation of something splendid can make the mundane more endurable or even pleasurable. The parable of the three bricklayers makes this point well. The first bricklayer is just carrying effing bricks. The second is doing this unpleasant work to provide for their family. The third is building a cathedral.

Setting our suffering in a bigger, positive, context can make a difference. And knowing that (at least for most people most of the time) suffering is not the whole story can make a difference, too.

Life is Mixed

Life is mixed, and what we do affects the mix.

Our responses can shape our experience. (Perhaps in very extreme situations this is not the case, but I think it is for most of us most of the time.)

We are active agents who make choices and so influence how much we suffer. This is true even of events over which we have no control (like earthquakes). We can choose to feel our emotional reactions or attempt to dull them; we can be moved to send money or volunteer to help an aid organisation. The kinds of choices we make will influence our experience of even these events whose occurrence we did not influence.

Usually our choices shape our experience in other ways. Especially in relationships, our behaviour will influence the behaviour of others. Entering a job interview swilling a beer and voicing an unending stream of profanity is extremely likely to influence the responses of the interviewer(s).

If we are willing to put in the time to listen to others, then it is likely our relationships will improve. If we tense to hold in our, emotions then we will have tight muscles — and the emotions will usually not go away if we just ignore them.

It is a liberating message to discover that we can influence to what extent we suffer.

I would like to hear from you about how you have responded to the difficulties you have encountered. Which ways have you found helpful to you and which have been less so? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

This post is inspired Caroline Brazier’s The Buddhist Psychology: Liberate Your Mind, Embrace Life [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], a book with a remarkable view of psychotherapy and which I recommend highly.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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