The hero – the ultimate weapon against suffering

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“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell

If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.

Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.

Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.

As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.

There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.

The victim

The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.

Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.

If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.

The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.

The hero

The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.

Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaning into suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats

The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.

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Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.

The choice is yours.

“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck

The one reason to complain

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Complaining is mostly a toxic behaviour. All of us can bear witness to the gloominess that washes over us when we’re in the company of a serial whiner; we’d tear down walls in order to escape the situation. Every self-righteous word vanquishes a bit of your soul. The worst thing you could do is attempt to suggest a fix for the thing being complained about, because that isn’t the desired outcome. Incessant whiners just want to whine.

It’s difficult to be empathetic in such situations, but we should certainly try. People of this kind are usually infected with deep-seated bitterness; their lives don’t match their expectations, and instead of having the courage to fix what’s bothering them, they relinquish the responsibility and complain instead. It’s much easier, after all.

There’s many reasons that people complain, and most of them are counterproductive to our mental health. For many of us, the hardest one to resist is physical pain. Hurting is horrible, and with it comes a tendency to vocalise the experience, whether it be groaning, grunting, or divulging to our partner in boring detail about every unpleasant sensation. Emotional pain is just as extreme, and carries similar effects.

Others might grumble because they’re aware of its power to bond. Many a friendship has been forged in the fires of Mount Gloom. Our judging and whining is met with nodding heads, and we become a little bit closer. We simply can’t believe that so and so would do such an awful thing, and by stating the fact we’re elevating ourselves above them, dismissing the possibility that we’d ever act in such an animalistic way. Nothing is more self-congratulatory than a high horse. We’re recruiting an army of like-minded whiners; together we can set this crooked world straight.

Being spoiled is another major factor. A hungover barista forgot to put chocolate sprinkles on our cappuccino, and we can’t find the words to express how much of an idiot he is. He has one job to do. Later on our flight is delayed by an hour, and it’s literally the worst thing to happen to anyone, ever. Never mind the fact that air travel is one of the greatest of human inventions, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have it. This type of spoiled demeanour is often paired with a lack of control, fuelled by our desire to direct everything so that it works out exactly as we want it to. The instant our expectations aren’t met, a complaint appears on our lips.

If you’re with friends and an extended spell of silence falls over the group, it’s likely that someone will whine or gossip about something in order to extinguish the awkwardness. It’s an older person’s favourite trick, and they mop it up like leftover gravy. Complaining feels good; it’s definitely preferable over the tension of silence.

Every complaint strengthens the neural pathways dedicated to complaining, making the road more likely to be travelled. Before you know it, you could be a serial whiner.

So should complaining be avoided at all costs? Not entirely. We all experience strong negative feelings from time to time, and bottling them up isn’t a good strategy. You may be depressed about your tedious career, and are talking about it with your partner. If we’re to stay sane, we absolutely must talk about such things. What we need to be mindful of is the approach that we’re taking – are we playing the role of the victim? The poor helpless individual who can’t get ahead in life no matter what we do? Or are we venting our frustrations in order to make things clearer to ourselves, and our partners? Are we having a conversation which leads us down the path to a solution? If you’re complaining about something and you have no desire to improve it (or it’s outside of your control), your whining is just serving to make you feel worse in the long run. The next time it pops into your head, you’ll be more likely to complain about it again, because you’ve trained yourself to do so.

Another great technique for this kind of complaining is writing. It helps to organise the jumble of negative thoughts that are swirling around in your head, out of which might emerge a solution to the problem. You might just write your way into a happier life.

The next time you catch yourself opening your mouth to complain about something, consider whether you actually want to fix what you’re whining about, or if you’re just being a pissy little bitch. The difference is crucial.

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” – Eckhart Tolle

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The usefulness of discomfort

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Problems are recognised as inherently negative beasties. They usually involve a great deal of doubt and uncertainty, and so we want them as far away from us as possible. Rarely have the words “I wish I had more problems” been uttered.

When an inevitable problem arises, we quietly swear and curse its existence. We’d hire a charcoal assassin to put a bullet between its eyes, if we could. Instead of tackling it, our brain reminds us that we haven’t checked our social media in the last 15 minutes, and that this is the prime opportunity to do so. Memes are much more fun than problems.

We do this because we absolutely hate discomfort, in any form. Our immediate reaction is to escape – into social media, alcohol, drugs, or whatever else floats your boat. But doing so only brings temporary relief, and the discomfort usually has to be dealt with eventually.

Discomfort is no big deal. Escaping is just running in the opposite direction to what will, in essence, grow you as a person. By running from discomfort, you’re choosing to be stunted, like a 10-year old boy who smokes 30 cigarettes a day. Every cigarette prevents the mind from growing; becoming more complex; more interesting; more fulfilled. Every time we take the easier route, we’re weakening our fortitude, and strengthening our cowardice.

Discomfort of any kind should be viewed as an opportunity to bolster our fortitude. The people written into our history books probably had this skill in common. Darwin didn’t ask the captain of the HMS Beagle to turn the ship around when the sea got a little rough. Instead they pressed on through the danger, and the entire world benefited.

Mindfulness is an invaluable tool to build fortitude, because it teaches you to catch yourself in the act. You realise that you’re about to do the thing that you’ve done a thousand times before: escape into something easier. Rather than going ahead, you might decide to do the difficult thing instead, and achieve something worthwhile. Mindfulness also helps with staying in the moment. You can detach yourself from the discomfort that you’re feeling, and recognise that it isn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought.

In addition to teaching you to be more conscious of your thoughts, practicing mindfulness has a ton of other benefits, including lowering stress, enhancing self-esteem, improving your memory and focus, reducing anxiety, and increasing your energy. Many psychologists recommend that you incorporate it into your daily routine (along with exercise), due to its bountiful, scientifically proven perks.

By practicing mindfulness, we can catch ourselves in the act of escaping discomfort, and slowly come to realise that problems aren’t the demons that they’ve been portrayed as, but invaluable opportunities to build fortitude, and become better people.

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Chasing happiness

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Most of us spend our lives fruitlessly chasing happiness, to our everlasting detriment.

It seems the natural thing to do; why on earth would we seek pain? Wouldn’t that make us debased masochists, delightfully sweating in anticipation of a jolly good bit of suffering?

Only pursuing positive experiences, it turns out, is a foolish endeavour. We’re robbing our lives of depth, because most things worth doing involve some degree of pain. It’s tempting to spend our days scrolling through social media like zombie consumers, safely protected from the possibility of a negative emotion emerging in our heads. But nothing is achieved by doing so; no sense of fulfilment will ever arise.

Alain De Botton says it better than anyone else:

The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

– Alain De Botton

We must have the grit and fortitude to battle through pain if we want to achieve anything worthwhile. Sadness is not a disorder to be cured, it’s the path to a more fulfilling life.

The daily struggles that we have with our negative emotions only serve to exacerbate the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Pushing against unfavourable emotion, rather than accepting it, simply makes us feel worse. It’s as though we’re desperate to split ourselves in two: remove the undesirable, sickly sides of ourselves with a rusty blade. Trying to cut it away just poisons us.

It isn’t possible to be half-human. We must accept the parts of ourselves that we loathe; stop resisting the so-called negative aspects of our being. We cannot remove the bad. It’s useless to even try. We’ll live with embarrassment, shame, fear, unwanted desire, sickness, anxiety and every other despicable thought or feeling that we can imagine. The great George Orwell once said:

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”

– George Orwell

What makes us so arrogant to think that we can dispel unhappiness from our lives? This misguided quest of attempting to make every single moment the happiest it can possibly be only results in inevitable disappointment; a bad taste in our mouths that we’ve been trying to wash out since adolescence. We’re destined for a rollercoaster of emotions:

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”

– Seneca

We can battle fate and exacerbate the pain, or instead make the choice to spend our lives with an attitude of acceptance. Only by embracing the latter can we truly be happier.

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