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.