When you want to change the world there’s a lot of ways to do so, but only one you and still only 24 hours in the day. So I have chosen, as most do, to try and change the world about a cause which affects my daily life. Easing others’ suffering and my own. I have huge compassion for those who suffer as I have done, even whilst the truth rings inside me: I choose to suffer. But I didn’t always think this way.
Did I choose to suffer the consequences of adoption by a family unsuited to raising a child? Did I choose to suffer when I was raped? Did I choose to suffer when I was mocked for having a scar riddled face? Did I choose to suffer when I was ostracized by my peers for losing my virginity? Did I choose to suffer when I was beaten by a man who said he loved me? I would have told you no. Never. And anyone who told me otherwise I would have deemed cruel. Privileged. But now it seems I am a person who embraces that truth. And admitting that maybe, just maybe, I am both cruel and privileged (the latter is certainly true).
I believe that many are not aware that we have a choice. We must become aware of the choice before we can make it. And even when you are aware that it is a choice, you can still choose to suffer because – weirdly enough – we are convinced it is the right one for us. We like to remain in the illusion that we can change our reality. But it is not reality to expect those who are unaware of the choice, to make such a choice and awareness is according to individual experience. You cannot bring someone else to their own awareness. You can barely bring yourself to it. And we can be highly aware of some things, and completely unaware in others, unaware that we are unaware. Unaware that there is such a thing as awareness. I know for sure that I am completely unaware of many things. But I rather like it, because it means there are always miracles around the corner.
If you tell a person who is not ready to hear that their suffering is a choice, two things usually happen. The person feels that calling it a choice belittles the legitimacy of their pain and by implication, reduces the compassion/support available to them (and naturally they don’t like that). The first is not true, and the second unfortunately tends to be, even if I don’t agree that it should be that way.
Both are the result of a conflation of ‘the choice to suffer’, with ‘martyrdom’. Martyrs are those who become their pain and define themselves by it. They use their suffering as emotional blackmail to passively and actively manipulate others, they choose to act incapable on purpose, so that others may rescue or support them. They create drama so that they can access power by feeding off the strength of others around them. It is emotionally abusive. And yet in all the cases of martyrdom I’ve seen, it is an unconscious move. It is the move of someone fighting for their survival, fighting to access the strength they think they need to survive. The strength with which they deny that their choice is to suffer, matches the depth of their lack of agency; the lack of awareness around their own power.
Few have compassion for someone who uses their suffering to manipulate others, but even so martyrs are not to blame for this, though only they can be responsible for changing it. You cannot change a martyr’s outlook, you can only define your own boundaries about the support that you are or are not willing to give.
But many suffer from pain without adding martyrdom to the mix.
The extent to which we choose to suffer from pain is directly related to how we approach the inevitability of pain. Life is impermanent, people have the right to leave relationships, and death and injury is inevitable. Many people live with chronic pain conditions. That pain exists, is an incontrovertible truth.
The more we fear pain, the more we fight against its inevitability, the worse our suffering will be. We can even suffer at the prospect of pain, though it might never happen. If we can lose the fear of pain, if we can accept that pain exists, we can stop a lot of suffering (especially that part about anticipating pain). When we accept pain in our lives, we can start to explore the boundaries of our pain and find out that there is more to life than pain. A lot more. Suffering blurs the edges of pain and makes the pain seem all consuming. Exploring the edges of your pain, can help you manage it better without suffering from it.
“In order to overcome something, you must submit to it first, to understand what it is you’re to overcome.” — Juan Wa Chang
I am lucky to have no chronic pain condition, no sexual abuse in my childhood and my pain has stemmed from impactful life experiences, both inflicted on me and/or created by me. With the pain, I experienced suffering by an exaggerated association of myself (an attachment) to my identity, my relationships, my material goods or to my loved ones. Whatever it was I had lost. A cataclysmic divorce from a husband I adored, meant that I understood the lesson to be ‘the less you are attached to something, the less you will fear losing it and the less you will suffer.’
In order to choose not to suffer I thought, I will have to choose not to attach myself to anyone, or anything.
But how did this pan out in reality? Attachment, so psychologists tell us, is part of our humanity and denying it the remit of psychopaths. Buddha tried it… and left behind his wife and his child to become an ascetic (apparently he wasn’t a psychopath). This logic is flawed (as he found out), because he confused non-attachment with renunciation of the world, not caring about anyone and wanting to escape the problems of existence. He tried to avoid life and its pain. It only caused him more pain and more suffering by all accounts.
Pain is not suffering. Pain is inevitable, suffering is not and there’s a difference, even if learning the distinction seems sometimes impossible. Pain is an experience, suffering is a perception. Both are valid, part of our humanity but only one is a choice we make because the alternative is unthinkable. It is to become something other than what we know as human. Theoretically then; stop fighting pain, and you will suffer less (in certain circumstances you might even avoid the self-created pain and the ensuing suffering altogether).
I choose not to leave my children. I choose not to live the life of an ascetic (mainly because well, I like food. A lot). I choose to accept pain as part and parcel of life. I am not a psychopath. I care about people and want them in my life. So learning non-attachment is not easy, and sometimes not even desirable but in some areas I have managed better than others.
My attachment to parts of my identity is weak for example, both by coincidence and design. If I were to lose my home or my job now, I do not think I would suffer greatly–nevertheless both have occurred in the past and I suffered enormously because I defined myself by my academic achievements and allowed myself to spin into fear; fear of loss of income, fear of loss of identity, fear of loss of social standing. I know now that I am not my job and I have learned that I can change, reframe, or at the very least moderate my emotional responses (but it takes practice).
My attachment to the form of my relationships is also weak and I have worked hard to make it so. Accepting that till death do us part, is not realistic or even desirable. Because to me loving someone means wanting them to be happy (not, I hasten to add wanting to make them happy; this is impossible). I do not possess them, but I am no martyr. Loving someone does not happen to the exclusion to myself, because as much as I love them, I also love myself and I want me to be happy. That means the form of my relationships may change, or even disappear. Last year someone I love faced death. And as I faced it with him, there was pain. But we were joyous whilst we tried to reframe our fear and embrace the reality of the situation.
I have never been tested about the attachment to my children. I do not want to be. Yet when I found out I had a tumour, I also realized although my potential death would be impactful for them, they would still be okay without me and that I would do my best to make sure they could be happy without me because I love them. I looked at the reality of what was going on. I wrote them several letters. I prepared a memory box. And in doing so, I found that although I loved them no less – possibly even more – I released some of my attachment to them.
I hope I will not have to face their mortality and deal with that pain. And if it were ever to happen, I have no doubt that I will choose to suffer. I will want to suffer. I will become trapped in the grief cycle, unwilling to move towards acceptance because I will long for them to be alive. As if I will lose them all over again, if I stop suffering. I will long for a reality that no longer exists.
And that’s the thing. Unless you are a psychopath or a zen master, you will suffer. You cannot learn how not to suffer because it’s a skill which is learned over time, through unimaginably hard suffering. But I can choose to try and master that skill, I can choose to learn how not to suffer by embracing pain and accepting reality as far as I am able. Hopefully it means that it gets easier for me not to suffer with new pain. For me, it’s obvious that those who suffer need compassion and support, because even if it remains a choice, it’s a difficult one. We all struggle with it and non-attachment is not about not caring, even if identifying the line between the two is a lifelong journey.