Updated: Oct 1, 2021
While it is popular to think that suffering builds character, we have found that suffering instead creates existential weight, and unravels character.
You can speak to your experience in many ways. Something happens: you didn’t get elected to the office you were seeking, you didn’t get the job you wanted, your pet died, your break your arm, your best friend moves away, you have chronic pain. The event that happened is not the source of your suffering. Rather, the source is in the meaning of these events to you, as a unique individual, and how your life is affected by them.
Let’s give examples of two different approaches.
Because of your pain, you say to yourself, “I can no longer have a good life. This
shouldn’t have happened.” In thinking this, you have sentenced yourself
to the notion that you can no longer have a good life, and there is
nothing you can do about it”; this brings suffering, something beyond
your understandable upset, disappointment and loss. It is the meaning
you attribute that can add weight. If you decide that the change that
took place is unacceptable, you are stuck and you do not have a choice.
Then you say even if you had a choice, it wouldn’t make a difference.
No options, no influence, no hope, no possibilities.
You use your existential immune system. First define what
is changing in an experience in which important needs are threatened.
Rover has died. What is the need threated? He brought me so much
companionship that I will miss. He was the reason that I was sure to get
exercise every day. I loved the joy of playing fetch with him. What can I
do to respond to the threat? I will grieve his loss. I will look for other
ways to get companionship and exercise and a sense of playful joy.
What specific steps am I ready to take to overcome or deal with the
threat? You could go a step further and identify some possible ways to
do each of those things. Now you have options that help you move
through the pain of the threat to your well-being without turning it into
Making this distinction helps to challenge pain and investigate it rather
than simply accept it and keep going.
The weight of chronic pain is directly related to the weight of your suffering.
The weight of chronic pain is lessened as you reduce the threats to your needs.