Good News: Life is Supposed to be Hard

 “Life’s hard. It’s supposed to be. If we didn’t suffer, we’d never learn anything.”

Ethan Hawke

So much of our efforts and ruminations center around making our lives easier. And why wouldn’t they? You would be hard pressed to find a single person who didn’t want their lives to be easier. That said, this desire, and our relationship to it, can have some consequences for our well-being. Most of these problems arise due to expectations or aspirations we have for what our lives could, or should be.

If I were to ask: “do you believe a life without suffering is possible?”, most would answer that it was not. In fact, one of my favorite psychologists, Phil Stutz, wisely points out that there are 3 things we can’t avoid in life: suffering, work, and uncertainty. However, so many of us add distress to our suffering by viewing it as avoidable, unnecessary, or inappropriate. This view of our suffering often causes us to resist our suffering, which can give it more energy and staying power. For example, imagine we are sad about something we feel we should not be sad about. This resistance can cause us to push this feeling away, and without processing this sadness, it is bound to resurface in some way. On a larger scale, if we subconsciously assume that a life without suffering is possible, then we may view any struggles we go through as a failure on our part, or worse, evidence that something in our life is broken. Most people recognize that suffering is inevitable, but when we resist this suffering, we add a layer of discontent that not only worsens the suffering, but can also prolong it.

The first step in the process of addressing this is recognizing your expectations and resistance, which are often just below our conscious awareness. A big piece of this is being mindful of when you are judging your suffering as inappropriate. A helpful part of this process is seeking the sources of these unrealistic expectations. No surprise, as with most of our unrealistic expectations, the media is the main culprit. Both traditional and social media present an image of a perfect and happy life or people whose suffering is rational and solvable. These stories and images subtly but strongly influence our worldview, our goals, and our judgements of ourselves. Added to this is our tendency to idealize the lives of others. When we look at people across the street or on our phones and construct a perfect image of their lives, we begin to view our suffering as inappropriate and we resist it. Consciously seeing through the lie of a perfect life with simple problems can start the process of adjusting our expectations to something more realistic. If we expect suffering, we enhance our ability to accept it.

In the end, a more healthy relationship with our struggles is one of acceptance, and paradoxically, accepting our suffering is an important tool in reducing its intensity and duration. That said, accepting something we don’t want is a very difficult task, and one that even Buddhist monks can’t do perfectly. There are, however, some perspectives that are useful in helping us to face the inevitable suffering in life with acceptance. The first is a view of our emotions, especially the unpleasant ones, as existing for a very good reason. Sadness, fear, anger, and discomfort all evolved with our other traits because they enhanced our ability to survive. They provide vital information about what is happening to us and how to behave. This perspective can help us to welcome all our emotions as valuable, and not resist them when they arise. Second, it is important to keep in mind the relationship between suffering and growth. Look back on any period of suffering in your life and you will likely find an important lesson there. If we can welcome suffering as a teacher with crucial lessons, we will find it easier to ask our resistance to stand down.

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