Suffering Is A Choice
Viktor Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, widely regarded as one of the most influential books of our time. Frankl was also a Holocaust survivor, where he was subjected to horrific crimes, including torture, starvation, and the expectancy of hourly extermination. During this time, he lost everything, including his entire family who perished in the camps.
Nelson Mandela suffered a similar fate. Wrongly imprisoned in 1962, he was sent to Robben Island, a former leper colony, where the warder's first words were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.” Mandela spent most of his 27-year prison sentence here, where he was made to work under torturous conditions. His only refuge, a cell measuring 8 x 7 feet, had nothing but a bucket and a straw bed.
Despite his ill-treatment, Mandela did not allow outside events to control his behaviour. Instead, he used reflective thinking, contemplation, and meditation to sharpen his mind. According to his Lawyer, George Bizo, no matter what was thrown at him, he even kept his cool and wit.
Frankl used similar tactics to survive the abject misery of four concentration camps. Rather than feeling trapped, and reacting to his external environment, he continued to exercise the most important freedom of all, the freedom to control his own his inner-life, as he alone decided how he responded to the appalling conditions.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Viktor Frankl
The nature of suffering
Life is full of challenges, most of which we have no control over. This might sound disheartening, but realizing this is a source of strength.
Why? Because we always have a choice over how we respond to challenging events, even extremely difficult ones.
What’s more, it is not the challenge itself, but our reaction to it, that causes most of our suffering.
This concept is best explained by the following Buddhist metaphor based on first and second darts:
‘First darts’ are inescapable pains that life throws at us. It might be emotional pain, like a tough breakup, a lost opportunity, or the death of a loved one. Or it might be physical pain, like a sports injury, or putting your hand on a hot stove. These unavoidable pains are the essence of human existence, and if you live and love, some of these will fall on your doorstep.
In reality, however, most of our suffering is not caused by first darts. It is caused by how we respond to them. ‘Second darts’ are the darts we throw at ourselves. These are our reactions to first darts, and this is where much of our suffering comes from.
Consider this example. You stub your toe on your child’s toy. That’s the first dart. The second dart — anger — follows immediately: “what the hell did you leave that there for”. Second darts frequently trigger more second darts. So now you feel guilty about your anger, and miserable about your guilt. Wrapped up in your misery, you might pick a fight with your partner, or wake up the following day, and take it out on a friend.
These second dart reactions are more common than you think.
How often have you woken up with yesterdays problems on your mind?
How many times have you brought the morning traffic into work?
How often have you brought work problems home for dinner?
This is the essence of suffering, secondary reactions to painful events, which are often more destructive than the original experience.
If this is the essence of suffering, how can we let go, or at least limit these second dart reactions?
Instead of resisting first darts, you should accept them completely. If you do have a tough breakup, or lose out on a great opportunity, accept it and move on. It’s our resistance to pain that causes our suffering.
Stop obsessing about painful experiences. First darts open wounds, but second darts keep them open. So stop picking the scab, and let it heal. Thinking about what you should have done won’t change a thing.
Take Away Message
We all face many challenges in life, most of which we have no control over. Some of these will be painful, but if you focus on what you can control, you don’t have to suffer.
Next time you’re faced with a difficult situation, instead of resisting what you cannot change, exercise the freedom of your own inner-world, only then will you be truly free.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” — Haruki Murakami