The Joys of Suffering
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” Romans 5: 3–5
I found myself in the seat of my dentist, for the 3rd time in 6 weeks. My last procedure cracked under the duress of eating pizza.
I’m a night-time grinder. I’ve chewed through 2 night guards in 4 years, each made of hard resin plastics. My dentist is pretty impressed... I think there’s something I need to work out in therapy.
Anyways, as a result, I chomped off the back of my molar. The last 2 fillings they tried, popped out. So here I am sitting in my dentist’s chair, getting an onlay.
He gets that bubble gum flavored topical numbing oil out, and starts to swab my mouth. My tongue starts to go numb. As he reaches for the syringe of local anesthesia, I stop him. “I’m okay”. He looks at me puzzled, “This is going to hurt. Let me give you…”.
“I’m good” I say. “I like the pain”. He was right. It hurt like a motherfucker.
I tried focusing on my breath. That worked for a little while. Then my mind started drifting off, and I started imagining myself as a civil war soldier, going through surgery with nothing more than a bottle of whiskey and a chomping stick to bite down on. That procedure got me through the first 15 minutes.
Then something strange started to happen. As I sat in the chair, each touch of his instrument on my tooth, and I’d feel a shooting rush of pain through my spine up to my brain, followed by what I can only describe as an immediate feeling of euphoria and ecstasy.
I walked out of that office with a new onlay (that eventually popped out again) and a reminder of a powerful lesson — there are two paths to enlightenment. The path of pleasure, and the path of pain. Both are capable of getting you to your end destination.
To Be Human Is To Suffer
Let’s start with what I mean by suffering. After all, it’s a pretty relative term which has a pretty wide range of meaning. The definition I’m using is “The state of undergoing pain, or stress or hardship”.
According to Wikipedia, suffering only occurs in sentient beings.
Suffering - Wikipedia
Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception…
So… it’s relative. Let’s be honest. I’m a millennial (barely). I haven’t had to “suffer” much.
And, I think most people try to escape their suffering. It’s natural to escape pain and try to find pleasure or comfort. But as far as I can tell, to be human is to suffer. It comes with the deal. We won the species lottery, but our scratcher comes with this unfortunate downside.
We get to experience feelings like euphoria, devotion, peace, arousal, lust, joy and love. But we also bear the burden of experiencing the other side of that — pain, sadness, loneliness, humiliation and suffering (ah the mother-lode of them all). To be human is to suffer. And as far as I can tell, it’s inescapable.
But… if you’re lucky, you get to choose your suffering. Being able to choose how and when you suffer is a privilege. Not everyone is so lucky. Some had that decision chosen for them. Whether it be mentally, emotionally, physically, or they were simply born in the wrong country, during the wrong time, of the wrong skin color, or any combination thereof.
I’ve learned to embrace suffering. It’s become a powerful teacher. And anytime I start to feel that pull to seek comfort or elude suffering, I try my best to go towards it, and endure it instead.
Learning to endure suffering, has taught me how to persist, it’s built character, grit, empathy and appreciation.
When you accept the idea that you don’t get to escape suffering, then the most logical decision to make is choosing how you’ll suffer.
Practice Makes Perfect
“You know what your problem is… you practice only gymnastics. I practice life.” Socrates from Way of The Peaceful Warrior
Because of this insight, I go through my day making decisions that allow me choice and control, instead of taking the easy way out.
I tackle growing and building new skills. Especially ones where there are high probabilities of facing criticism, or where there’s a high chance of failure.
Several months ago, I noticed I started sleeping in until 6:30 or 6:45. I was seeking comfort. So I started waking up at 5:15AM again.
I turn the thermostat down to 65 degrees when I sleep, and open the windows in the winter.
I turn the shower up to almost too hot to stand, then as cold as it will get for the last 60 seconds of my shower.
I’m pretty strong physically, but my mobility and flexibility have been shit for years. My girlfriend, has had to endure me groaning in pain the last 2 months at 7AM while stretching out and tearing my soft cartilage and connective tissue apart, like it was a pulled pork brisket.
Every 4–6 months I go 3–5 days without food, and only drink water and tea (and sometimes BCAA and a couple teaspoons of olive oil, if I’m being honest).
I take the stairs at work and at home, instead of the escalator or elevator.
If it’s been a couple of days and I keep putting off that thing that I don’t want to do, I make myself do it before I leave for the office.
I seek out things that I fear. I have tough conversations with people, immediately (while also practicing empathy). Whatever makes me uncomfortable I do.
I practice suffering, before it matters.
What Are You Willing To Suffer For?
“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no Lion, Hydra, Stag or Boar — and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?” Marcus Aurelius
There are people in this world today, and throughout time, who didn’t get the good fortune of choosing how they suffer. Their hand was dealt to them at birth, and their fate sealed.
Not only do I want to choose my cross, I want to nail myself up there. Because if I’m going to suffer, I want to be in control of how, when and why, whenever possible.
I’m okay standing up for my principles even if that means I’ll have to suffer the consequences.
Through all the directed choices to suffer, from big to small, I’ve found I’ve grown a tolerance for slugging it out… inch, by fucking inch. And I wholeheartedly know I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that.
I know one day something really big is going to happen that will test my endurance and resolve. My only hope is that I’ve prepared myself, by learning how to suffer with grace, empathy, honor and duty.
If you’re suffering, take solace in knowing that I have and am too. You’re not alone. And I hope you find a sunrise at the end your dark night, as I have, through each episode.
“Music is to the soul, what words are to the mind” Modest Mouse
Music just doesn’t something to me. The right song can become the soundtrack to life. Anytime I write, or work on something hard, enduring and/or creative, I like listening to a song on repeat.
This was the soundtrack to this piece. Hope you enjoy. And if you’d like to see the music I listen to from some of my other writings, let me know in the comments and I’ll try and update them.
During the writing of this piece, I listened to this song (35) times.