Problems and Suffering

1. Problems

Problems: we’ve all got them in one form or another. It may be health problems, financial difficulties, relationship trouble, career worries, or something else. Yes, we all have challenges to face, puzzles to unravel, and hurdles to overcome. But is that so bad? Psychiatrist, best-selling author, and screenwriter Theodore Isaac Rubin doesn’t think so, for he wrote, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

Dr. Rubin makes a good point. For the first mistake we make is to assume life should be free of problems. It’s like saying the ocean should be free of salt or the air of oxygen. Without salt, it’s not an ocean; without oxygen, it’s not air, and without ‘problems,’ it’s not life. The second mistake we make is believing problems are problems. They’re not; they’re opportunities. Can we grow stronger without struggling through difficulties? Can we make progress without defeating obstacles? No, problems are not ‘problems;’ they are merely steps we take on the road to a better life. However, if we are burdened with a negative attitude, the steps we have to take may appear as pebbles in our shoes and make any progress painful. The solution is not to change our shoes, but to remove the pebbles.

Having the right attitude, or being positive, makes a big difference. Through the eyes of a positive person, strangers are friends we have yet to make and ‘problems’ are blessings we have yet to unwrap. But why is it so difficult for some to see things in a positive light? Well, some make the mistake of identifying with their problems. They lose themselves by becoming what they experience.

For example, Tom feels sad. If he remembers that he is a person experiencing sadness, he will also remember he has options. There are things he can do to diminish or eliminate his sadness. But if he identifies with the sadness he is momentarily experiencing, if he BECOMES sad by thinking I AM sad, he will lose all options. Only people have options. Sadness, depression, misery, and suffering have no options; they merely are. As long as you remember that you are a person having an experience, and not the experience itself, you will retain control over your life.

Another reason why some people cannot shake off their ‘problems’ is that they don’t want to. Oh, they will protest that there is nothing they would rather do than shed their problems, but they have made them their friends and don’t wish to part company with them. Why is that? Well, they may want to appear heroic; they may want to show how ‘strong’ they are to put up with so much suffering. They may be afraid that if they were to give up their suffering, they would lose their ‘heroic’ status and have nothing to talk about.

Yet another mistake some make is to ask themselves the wrong questions. “Why is this happening to me?” is an example of a wrong question. All that does is keep one’s attention on the problem, further entrenching it. How much better it is to ask solution oriented questions. Questions like, “What are my options? What is the worst thing that can happen? How likely is that to happen? What steps should I be taking now to prepare for a worst case scenario? How can this problem benefit me? What opportunity is hidden in it? Have others overcome similar problems? What do successful people do when they face the same problem? Are other people worst off than I? How am I better off than many others? What should I be grateful for? If it turns out that I cannot handle this problem by myself, where can I turn to for help?”

Everyone is looking for something. And our search becomes a habit. If we’re looking for the wrong thing, it’s a bad habit. What is the wrong thing? Misery! Why are so many straining their eyes in search of it? They love to report all that’s ‘wrong’ with the world. They gloat with each new discovery they make. Why do they insist on wallowing in misery? Just because they have a can opener, do they have to open every can of worms? True, they may derive a degree of masochistic pleasure, but wouldn’t true happiness be a better prize? How can we discover goodness and sources for joy unless we look for them? So, if we are not experiencing happiness, we need to change our habit of looking for the bad to the habit of looking for the good. For it is only then that we will find it.

Another big help is to approach our ‘problems’ with a sense of humor. When we can laugh at ourselves and our predicament, we will be free of stress, which paves the way for clear thinking and the discovery of solutions. You have as much chance to think straight when upset as you have to think clearly while clenching your teeth in frustration. If you want to make it easier to arrive at solutions, learn to laugh and how to relax.

Any human activity, including problem solving, requires energy. It’s not very helpful if you don’t have enough to dig yourself out of your current dilemma. Don’t try to run away from problems or suppress them, for all that does is deplete you of the energy you need to solve them. It is only by facing them squarely that we can examine them in sufficient detail to uncover their solution.

Another clue to problem solving was given by Henry Ford when he said, “There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.” In other words, each big problem is simply a series of smaller ones, each of which is easier to solve than a big problem. So, break down your problem and start tackling the easiest of the smaller ones and work your way up.

Pinning the blame on others, or circumstances, or life in general only perpetuates our problems. Once we acknowledge that there is something wrong with our viewpoint, we can do something about it. Once we see ‘problems’ as opportunities, things change. After all, if we want an ocean of opportunity, we have to accept the fact that we will be knocked about by the waves. And as we grow skillful, we will learn to ride them. At that point there are no more problems, for only thrills and adventure await those with courage and vision.

2. Suffering

You may know or be a person in the midst of extreme hardship such as poverty, illness, pain, loneliness, unemployment, disability, homelessness, depression, or addiction. What shall we do when that is our lot? Well, we have three choices. First, we can struggle, resist, and do everything in our power to escape. Second, we can accept it. Third, we can embrace it.

The first choice makes sense if our struggle will improve the situation. Many people, for example, have lifted themselves from poverty after a long fight. As long as there is a dream, hope, and faith, anything may be possible. Time after time, heroes have arisen who have fought against impossible odds. They changed what others believed was meant to be into what could be.

Some of these heroes were born deaf and dumb. Others blind. Still others, lame. Regardless of their fate, they proved we have within us the power to overcome any difficulty, the power to perform miracles, the power to be victorious and glorious. These heroic men and women were armed with courage, belief, and determination, tools available to all who call on their inner resources. But we have to want to change before we can change.

A major cause of unhappiness is to resist suffering without trying to do something about it. That is, some who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances beat their breasts and cry out, “Why me? Why is life so unfair?” Such questions do little to improve the situation. At best, they offer the complainers the comforting thought that they are not responsible for their suffering because they are victims. They may be victims, but not of circumstance. Rather, they are victims of their own negative thoughts, self-limiting beliefs, and false ideas.

Instead of complaining, it is far better to ask empowering questions such as, “What can I do about the situation? What are my options? What small step can I take now that will improve my lot? How have others overcome similar problems? What do I need to do?”

Complaining about suffering without doing something about it doesn’t help. It merely adds to the pain. We are not meant to be beaten down by life. We are not supposed to give up or surrender when the going gets tough. Rather, we are meant to get tough and get going.

At times, however, we encounter a painful situation that cannot be changed. Death of a loved one is an example. No matter how courageous we are, we cannot bring the dead back to life. But what we can do is to accept that death and suffering are both unavoidable and a part of life. To accept what cannot be changed is a mark of wisdom, to fight it is folly and a cause of unhappiness.

To see how one man accepted his impending death from pancreatic cancer and used it to inspire others, watch Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch as he delivered his last university lecture on September 18, 2007. You can watch the 1-hour 16-minute inspirational video by clicking here.

The third choice we have when we meet with suffering is to embrace it. This is a special path. It is the path of warriors, heroes, and champions. This special breed of men and women use their pain to understand how others feel and then dedicate themselves to lessening the suffering of others. Once aware of how others suffer, they have no time to think about their own pain.

But most of us are not heroes yet. So, what do we do in the meantime? The first thing is to realize that regardless of our situation, there are always others who are worst off or better off. The second thing we need to understand is we choose what we focus on. That is, we can focus on those who are better off or those who are worse off.

Choosing to focus on those who are better off is a formula for frustration, resentment, envy, and anger. In other words, all it does is increase our pain. Not very helpful, is it? On the other hand, when we focus on those who are less fortunate, we experience gratitude and compassion. If these pleasant feelings do not completely wash away our suffering, they at least diminish it. That being so, where should we focus our attention?

To help you answer that question, think about the following words of Psychotherapist Jennifer Welwood:

Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within;
Opening to my loss,
I am given unimaginable gifts;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.

Each condition I flee from pursues me.
Each condition I welcome transforms me
And becomes itself transformed
Into its radiant jewel-like essence.
I bow to the one who has made it so,
Who has crafted this Master Game;
To play it is pure delight,
To honor it is true devotion.

One dozen more points to consider on the subject of suffering:

1. Suffering is part and parcel of life. Accept it. Those who are so distraught that they commit suicide have forgotten that life is about change. Everything changes. Including our present painful circumstances. Many who came close to committing suicide, but balked at the last minute, were amazed how wonderful things turned out. They now rejoice that they hesitated. Remember, nothing is permanent, including suffering.

2. Besides accepting the inevitability of suffering, prepare for it. Do whatever you can to lessen the impact of disaster when it strikes. Here is a story to illustrate this point. It was written by “Uncle Arthur.”

“Years ago, a farmer owned land along the Atlantic seacoast. He constantly advertised for hired hands. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic. They dreaded the awful storms that raged across the Atlantic, wreaking havoc on the buildings and crops. As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals.

“Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer. ‘Are you a good farm hand?’ the farmer asked him. ‘Well, I can sleep when the wind blows,’ answered the little man.

“Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired him. The little man worked well around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man’s work. Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand’s sleeping quarters. He shook the little man and yelled, ‘Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!’ The little man rolled over in bed and said firmly, ‘No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.’

“Enraged by the response, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarpaulins. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops, and the doors were barred. The shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down.

“Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his hired hand meant, so he returned to his bed to also sleep while the wind blew.”

Prepare for disaster and you, too, will be able to sleep while the wind blows.

3. Increasing freedom and strength. For each difficulty you overcome, you push back the boundary of what you can bear. As your comfort zone expands, you grow in freedom and power. Like tea bags, we’re not worth very much unless we’ve been through hot water.

4. When troubles come, face them. For as Dorothy Fields said, “No matter where I run, I meet myself there.” That is, we cannot run away from our problems. Instead of spending valuable energy hiding from them, we need to use that energy for finding solutions. After all, the best way to escape from your problems is to solve or overcome them. And if you can’t solve them at this time, learn how to cope with them or manage them.

5. Break big problems down into smaller ones. Don’t let big problems overwhelm you. Break them down into small problems, and begin by tackling the smallest and easiest part. Baby steps are far better than no steps, and they will take you where you want to go. And keep in mind that every big problem was at one time a small one, so when new ones appear, nip them in the bud. Overcome them while they are still small and you will save yourself a lot of heartache.

6. Look forward to the satisfaction of conquering your difficulties. Problems present you with the opportunity to discover what it feels like to be victorious. Don’t stand on the sidelines admiring the feats of others, but taste the exhilaration of victory yourself by courageously defeating your personal challenges.

7. Transmute negative energy into positive energy. Your difficulties are not meant to dampen your desire for success; but to rouse it, to elevate it, and to let it soar to yet unreached heights. Your problems are life’s way of saying it has big plans in mind for you. Becoming the magnificent being that you were meant to be may be a bit scary, but the greater your fear, the greater the pride and joy you will experience at the moment of victory.

8. Learn from them. Here is a valuable tip from Rene Descartes, “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.”

9. You may need a break. You probably have more than one problem. So, if you get stuck on one, take a temporary break, and start working on another one. While you’re doing so, the solution to the first problem may appear.

10. Make the right choices. Choose happiness. Choose to have the right attitude. Choose to be victorious. Choose to draw upon your inherent power. Choose to become the miracle worker you were meant to be. Choose to live courageously. Choose to live the exciting life of a champion.

11. It may be a time for tears. You may have lost a love one or encountered a catastrophe at this very moment. Perhaps the wind was just knocked out of you. Life may have dealt you a knockout blow today. If that is the case, you need time to heal. You will need time before you can summon your resources and regain your composure. Perhaps all you can do at this moment is cry. If so, take all the time you need. Allow yourself to purge the pain, but remain resolved that you will not allow it to defeat you.

12. Temper your trials with humor. Cultivate a sense of humor as it will lighten your burdens. To get you started, consider this advice from Sholom Aleichem: “No matter how bad things get you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you!”

I’ll end with this thought, those who bask in success do so not because their lives were free of problems, but because they faced and overcame them. You can do the same.



More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us by Steve Leder

The Antidote to Suffering: How Compassionate Connected Care Can Improve Safety, Quality, and Experience by Christina Dempsey

Making Sense Out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft

Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual by Dennis Prager

Mindlift: Mental Fitness for the Modern Mind by Kasper van der Meulen

The More You Do The Better You Feel: How to Overcome Procrastination and Live a Happier Life

By David Parker


Amit Sood, MD: Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Neural Predispositions to Suffering

The End Of Suffering

7 Step Problem Solving