Embrace Your Suffering by Zach Obront

 “Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.” – Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man

The girl working the drive-thru once told me that life is just one long chain of suffering.

But that seems wrong, doesn’t it? I was too hungry to argue with her, but life is beautiful and interesting and playful and amazing. It’s all we’ve got. It can’t be all bad.

I will make one small concession, though: a fulfilling life does require some suffering.

It’s true for everyone, regardless of what your dreams and goals and ambitions are. The jock in the gym and the artist in front of her easel have to face the same reality.

 And that’s the cause of the kind of suffering I’m talking about: the enormous gap between your perception of the world and the world as it really is.

It’s called cognitive dissonance and it isn’t fun.

It makes your brain uncomfortable. It makes you feel inadequate. It leads to suffering. And then it leads to one of two reactions:

1)    You delude yourself into believing that the world is wrong. Your business would take off if people just understood you. Your book would sell if you just had the right connections.

2)    You treat your failure and suffering as a learning experience, put your ego aside, and work to minimize the chance that it happens again. You close the gap by evolving.

Doesn’t sound so hard, right? We should all just objectively use reality to guide us. But as a French dude once said: “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”

Damn. He’s right. Sometimes it seems easier to cover our eyes, plug our ears, and shrink away from the truth. It hurts to admit we’re wrong. But this isn’t the path to growth. Facing our suffering head-on provides valuable feedback on how we can improve. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Not to trick ourselves into thinking we’re awesome, but to actually be awesome.

This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from the Stoics. It isn’t that pain or suffering are fun, but rather than we can convert our pain into transformation and our suffering into growth.

Protecting our sensitive egos doesn’t get us anywhere. The only way to turn our dreams into reality is to treat the harsh truths of the world like prickly little rose bushes lining our paths. We can ignore the pain and trudge through them or we can accept it, learn from it and correct course. The thorns aren’t evil. They’re there to keep us on track.

Embrace the suffering. Use it to become better. This is the Stoic way.

Zach Obront runs a blog at http://zachobront.com, where he rambles about entrepreneurship, psychology and history. He’s also the founder of Landline Assassin, a telecommunications company leading the battle against home phones, and the head of recruitment at GiveGetWin, a growing non-profit dedicated to turning the philanthropy model on its head.

8 thoughts on Embrace Your Suffering by Zach Obront

  1. Angela Gilmour says:

    This is very true. The world is not wrong we have to constantly strive to find harmony within it. ‘Suffering’ helps us to grow acceptance is hard but vital if we are to be happy.

  2. Veronica says:

    It’s true I think that suffering can either build us up, or destroy us, and it is an intellectual choice to be made – is that open to everyone? I’m not sure. I can’t see suffering as something which is there to keep you on track unless it is induced by your own selfishness; random and painful suffering does however keep you grounded. That’s the acceptance bit I guess – which we absolutely need to “be happy” or stay sane.

  3. Very sharp points, and great quotes here. You see this theme recur among people who live flourishing lives, doing meaningful things and being happy.
    Miyamoto Musashi, arguably Japan’s greatest swordsmen, wrote precepts in his “Way of Walking Alone” on his deathbed. The first one? “Accept everything exactly the way it is.”

  4. Widmerpool says:

    “Cognitive Dissonance” isn’t the gap between perception and reality; it’s the gap between your value judgements and your behaviour. And it isn’t a form of suffering, as it’s commonly not consciously apprehended. Apart from that, good stuff!

  5. John Day says:

    I have a son who has probably justifiably acquired the psychiatric tag of schizophrenia. He finds suffering a disappointment as we do his parents so let us see if we cannot turn it into a virtue. I think it is possible but it will take a bit of convincing the pschiatrists that he can take more pain if of course he copes with meditation. We his parents undoubtedly drive this concept of being “better”.
    The medication he takes we all think has helped him but there is just no evidence scientifically that this is the case. Once trapped on medication it seems so difficult to escape despite horrendous side effects of loss of cognitive function and quite aggressive obsessive compulsive symptoms more recently. I can hear the echo of the devil saying but of course those are side effects or signs and symptoms of the disease a neuro degenerative condition not the huge doses of medication.
    We will keep you posted. Perhaps this blog could remain anonymous although I am quite happy to post my email. If this a problem let me know.

  6. I have to say I am not sure ’embrace suffering is the stoic way’! I think it’s more about enduring suffering, not courting it! That’s the distinction between masochism and heroism. Viktor Frankl (after his liberation from concentration camps) wrote: D=S-M – despair is suffering without meaning.

    • Epictetus suggested taking a mouthful of water (when you’re thirsty) and then spitting it out; or, in cold weather, embracing a marble statue. Seneca had a practice of spending a few days sleeping on a straw mattress and eating gruel. It seems to me that embracing suffering is exactly the Stoic way. How, after all, could you learn to endure suffering without practising it?
      Frankl may have been right; but the suffering the Stoic embraces isn’t suffering without meaning. Its meaning is “training”.

  7. eebee2 says:

    What do Stoics say about the opposite condition? That of feeling guilty and blaming yourself for past faults. I guess it is the acceptance that you can’t do anything about it now just don’t do it again. But I find that difficult to internalise.

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