An end of suffering?

This most recent health hurdle with Denise has inspired some further reflection on the subject of suffering. The most poignant question in my mind is, “why in the world do I seem to be handling this situation so much better than the previous situations?”

Upon reflection, I may have stumbled upon one key ingredient in eliminating (or, at the very least, significantly reducing) suffering.

Let me back up a bit. For those who may not be aware, we had quite a health scare with my wife in the Spring of 2013. We nearly lost her and it is something of a miracle that she’s not only alive today, but devoid of long-term neurological damage.

That’s not the only “life challenge” I’ve been dealing with. Folks don’t know everything that’s going on because I don’t tend to put all my challenges and woes out on the internet. Even now I choose to be rather nondescript as I share some of what I’ve been facing.

  • Denise has been back to the hospital numerous times since 2013. Some of the visits were emotionally scarring, though none were technically life-threatening. Enough said.
  • We have other health issues in my family; issues of a degenerative and debilitating nature. Enough said.
  • There were some emotional / mental health issues in our family that surfaced as fallout from the initial event that have required some professional assistance to deal with. Enough said.
  • In my professional life I went virtually without work for the majority of 2016 thanks to the downturn. We scraped by, but that was extremely financially challenging. Enough said.
  • I’ve been working on developing a new product, and company, for many years now. We have made significant strides forward recently, but it has been virtually on-hold for a long time before then. Enough said.
  • Some former business associates have added unexpected legal stress into the mix of my business venture. Enough said.

I don’t say all this to garner some sense of pity from the reader, so please don’t think to yourself, “oh, that’s awful; how can I help?” That’s not my point in bringing all of this up.

My point in bringing all of this up is to draw attention to the fact that I’ve been under vastly more stress and pressure in the past roughly 5 years than I remember ever being at any other point in my life. The emotional roller coaster has reached previously unknown lows and, on far too infrequent occasions, previously unknown highs in the past 5 years. We have faced death, financial struggle, business stress and even legal issues that were totally foreign to us prior to this time period.

But – and here’s my point – I am not suffering.

And this is the weird thing. As I describe everything we are going through I imagine how terrible that would be if it happened to somebody else. But when our family is the recipient of such challenges, for some reason this time around, I am not suffering. I cannot speak for Denise and the kids; you’d have to ask them.

Now please don’t hear me wrong. I am stressed. I feel sorrow, fear and anger at some of what we are facing. I am not going through all of this with a chipper smile on my face and total peace in my soul. Far from it. I have wept. I have shaken my head in utter incomprehension. I continue to ride this emotional roller coaster, though I would be delighted to get off.

Despite all that, I would say that I am not suffering. And there is a difference. Back in 2013 I definitely felt as though I (and my family) were suffering. But not so much now. Something is different.

That difference has intrigued me. What happened? When we first went through the horror of 2013 I would say I suffered. Seriously suffered. But I have felt in the years since then that my reaction to these situations has still been emotionally jarring yet it would be inaccurate to say that I am “suffering.”

Enduring unpleasant hardship, it turns out, is not the same as suffering.

I have a theory. But I should warn you that this is just a speculative theory and I’m putting it out there more to explore the subject than to provide any particular insight into the subject.

My theory is that the people who suffer the most when times get tough are the people clinging to the greatest misunderstanding of reality.

That’s my theory. If true, the inverse of that equation offers something of a solution to suffering; align your views of reality with Truth. Stop accepting false beliefs.

Let me illustrate. When Denise first entered the hospital in 2013 we were all vaguely aware of the fact that she was at a heightened risk of major cardiac trauma. I had thought about it from time to time over the course of our marriage, but she was taking her medications and all seemed to be well. Sure, it was theoretically possible, but it seemed a distant possibility at best.

Without realizing it I had inadvertently fooled myself into thinking she wouldn’t have any problems. Then when death came knocking at her doorstep, and was only narrow beaten back, that jarred me to my core. The magnitude of my suffering was proportional to the magnitude of my false belief in Denise’s invincibility.

Since that time, of course, we have had no choice but to face (and face again, and again) the reality that Denise’s heart is prone to acting up. And now it has come to the point where it’s “acting up” is causing so much trouble for her that she is being prepared to eventually be added to the heart transplant list.

A terrifying, yet simultaneously exciting, prospect. The terrifying part, though, is cause for concern. People often think of the end result – a brand new heart!! – but take a moment to reflect on what needs to happen to Denise in order for that end result to be enjoyed. What does the surgery look like? Now imagine that the doctors would like to do that surgery to somebody near and dear to you. Imagine them on the surgical table. Are you still excited? Perhaps now you are modestly concerned about the whole thing? You should be!

And there is no joy to be found in conversations around why she needs this operation at all. I don’t think I need to say what the alternative is if she were to decide, “no, I think I’ll just keep this heart and skip all the surgeries.” Not a happy ending.

So this has been an emotional roller coaster, complete with nights of crying myself to sleep.

Yet, strangely, I don’t feel as though I am suffering. I believe that is because we have had the true nature of reality drilled into us for nearly 5 years. Whatever delusions I may have carried in the distant past about Denise’s health or, for that matter, the “inevitability” of long life and comfort for any human being, have long since been expunged from my mind. God does not owe Denise another day of existence. He does not owe me another day of existence. I hate to think about it, but God may very well decide to make my bury my own children. He does not even owe them long life and comfort.

Such delusions of “God owes me” are no longer part of my picture of reality, so as our family navigates the various physical, psychological and other health issues we’ve had to go through I am able to celebrate, mourn, get angry and so on, without “suffering” through the process.

It truly does feel, somehow, different. It is still unpleasant, but not as existentially shocking.

Similarly with my career and business. When I went on contract with my day job I knew, conceptually, that if the economy tanked I’d be the first one out of work. But, deep down, I “knew” that would never happen. And if it did happen, it would be like all the previous recessions in Alberta; dramatic, but short-lived. Well, not this time. The recession is still adversely impacting many people in Alberta, and it’s been a whole lot longer than any previous recession. So my false beliefs about the economy – “it could never really get THAT bad” – have been usurped by reality. And the sooner I dispensed with my false belief the sooner I moved past suffering.

Again, I still got stressed, concerned, fearful, sad and all that, but the element of “suffering” didn’t seem to be as strong.

[For the record, work really picked up at the beginning of 2017, so our financial situation is vastly improved.]

And starting a business seemed, in theory, a relatively straightforward venture. You get an idea, you develop it, you get the right people on board, some money too, and you’re off to the races. That’s what it seemed like, but at least with starting a business I can rightly say that I was fairly ignorant. And that ignorance, in some ways, was helpful. Because if I don’t have any solid concept of what it means to start a business then, by definition, I am not holding on to very many false concepts. Thus, when the going gets tough, I am less prone to suffer, because I didn’t have any false sense of reality that has been shattered by the challenges.

And the aforementioned “legal stress” did provide some element of suffering at first because it just seemed so utterly foreign. I never (or rarely?) consciously thought about the possibility that this might happen to me; deep down it just seemed as though that was something that happens to other people. I found great comfort, then, when numerous people – including lawyers – told me how often these kinds of situations arise. I still feel the full gamut of unpleasant emotions about the whole thing, but the knowledge that these situations happen relatively frequently means that this unpleasant experience is, in actuality, part of the fabric of reality.

So that’s my theory, with a few examples from my own life. And I don’t think the experiences are unique to me. Let me provide two other examples to consider.

First, consider the growing awareness of “first world problems.” While we are struggling with things like “micro-aggressions” people in the third world are getting shot at. When people in the first world don’t get enough positive feedback on social media somehow that cuts to the very core of their being; meanwhile people in the third world might be curious how long before they contract some deadly virus from the water.

Yet it seems those who have been through significantly more trying circumstances than we could ever face in our North American comfort also tend (from my experience) to talk far less about suffering. I’ve heard it said – and I cannot recall the source so take this with the appropriate grain of salt – that the so-called “problem of suffering” is a distinctly Western “problem” that people have with God. Those in vastly more horrifying circumstances do not consider their circumstances to be some kind of disproof of God’s existence nearly as often as people in relative comfort do. Indeed, the difficult circumstances more often lead them to reliance on God than rejection of him.

I speculate that the reason for this is because those of us in Western civilization have had “progress” and “enlightenment” thinking shoved down our throats for so many centuries that we just blindly assume things are getting better and better, for everybody all the time, and when things go sour it truly rocks our world. But for those living in terrible circumstances it takes a special level of delusion to think the world is a generally wonderful place and they get to enjoy it. Our lives of comfort have separated us from reality; plain and simple. Our comfort has lead to our suffering.

The irony runs thick, and it highlights that we should probably distinguish between extremely unpleasant circumstances on the one hand and “suffering” on the other hand. We seem to assume that suffering is synonymous with hardship – two sides of the same coin – then we scratch our heads when people who have gone through so much worse than we could fathom, do so with a sense of peace. Their lives are not shattered, their worlds are not turned upside down, yet their challenges are so much greater than ours.

Which leads me to my second observation. When people go through extremely difficult seasons, phrases such as “my world was turned upside down” or “everything in my life just collapsed” seem to be common descriptions. If my theory has any merit, then the problem is not that “my world” was turned upside down, but rather, “my perception of the world” was turned upside down. The problem is not that “everything” collapsed, but that my “understanding of everything” collapsed.

I’m no psychologist, but a friend of mine is. She tells me that depression, relative to other mental illnesses, is far easier to effectively deal with. If you face depression, please don’t interpret this as a “get over it” message, but rather a promise of hope. From what I’m told, one of the common treatments for depression (other than medications) is something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The essence of this therapy is apparently to help the person dealing with depression to focus their mental energy on all the positive elements of their life. While they may be tempted to slip into focusing on what’s wrong, by forcing themselves to take stock of, and direct their mental energy toward, that which is right, they can often reduce the impact of depression in their lives.

And that act, in a manner of speaking, is a reorientation of their perception of reality. It would seem (according to my entirely unqualified understanding of the field) that one of the roots of depression is that one’s understanding of reality is a distortion of actual reality. All one sees is the negative – and life has its negative elements, to be sure – when one should really see both the negative and the positive in a more balanced perspective. One should see the good and the bad for what they truly are. One’s understanding of reality should align with reality.

[And, again, sometimes medication is also necessary. And sometimes there isn’t a cure. I’m not trying to oversimplify things here.]

So maybe, just maybe, part of the problem of suffering has less to do with God or all that is wrong with the world, and so much more to do with our false understanding of reality. In the real world God has not promised us 80 years, all of which will be lived in relative comfort. He has not promised us freedom from disease. He has not promised us stable and predictable careers. He has not promised us an easy path to success on new projects and ventures.

He has not promised us any of these things, and he does not owe them to us. The extent to which we expect the good without the bad (or, in the case of depression, the bad without the good) is the extent to which we are setting ourselves up for suffering. Maybe, just maybe, we could make great strides toward ridding the world of suffering merely be aligning our understanding of reality with reality as it actually exists.

There are good days. There are bad days. They are all God’s days. Live for him in everything, for as many days as he gives you, in whatever circumstances he puts you through, and lean on him to help you through it all.

If you are looking for a world without difficulty and hardship you’re going to have to wait a little longer; Jesus hasn’t returned yet.

But when he does…