The Thing About Suffering

by | Jan 12, 2021

 There are two kinds of suffering. One is the kind you can control. If it is within your power to stop it, not taking action is self-neglect, cowardice or falling victim to self-centred leadership. Today, some find their loyalty is being used as a tool to further the leader’s personal goals, regardless of the pain it causes. This is how I understand some people not wearing masks. The mask has the power to foil a deadly virus but leadership de-values the mask out of fear that people will stop going out to spend money if the virus is real. It may be difficult but there is still an individual choice of actions here. This is optional suffering.


There is also suffering that is beyond our control. It is caused by something unknown to us, and therefore the usual plans of action are ineffective. Our linear power, in the forms of efforts to assert our will even against resistance, is rendered useless. Or, sometimes the physical forces causing the suffering are so powerful that taking action against them would bring certain death. This is the situation Viktor Frankl found himself in during Nazi Germany as a Jew in a concentration camp. Because he had no other option, Frankl turned inward and found his circular power.


Frankl discovered that even though he couldn’t control his horrific situation, he had the power to choose his beliefs (answers to the ‘why’ questions) and to choose which of his feelings he would give his attention to. When he chose his love-based feelings he had a measure of joy, even in the direst of circumstances. No matter what his enemies did to him physically, they could not take this power away from him.


Ironically, lack of agency in the external world opens up the gifts of our internal worlds; reflection, revisiting memories, happy and sad, and becoming aware of our associated beliefs, insights into what is driving our societal and personal actions, awakening to what is meaningful, creativity, openness to transformation, connection to our authentic voices – our soul perhaps – and resilience.

When our normal external world becomes uncontrollably dangerous, unpredictable and foreign, we are thrown into our internal world. This fascinates me. The external world’s hostility causes us to find a container of safety. It is like we have retreated to a room and shut the door on all the busy-ness of our old lives. As we turn around and start to explore the room we find ourselves in, we realize we have landed in Aladdin’s cave of treasures. We have reached a place that was impossible for us to see before.


History has shown us that hardship leads to new and better solutions. I always thought that was the result of more intense linear efforts to assert our will, even against resistance. Make a better plan, find stronger allies, work harder. But now I think that extreme hardship forces us to abandon linear thinking – we find our only hope is to think differently. This time the answers come from leaders making it possible for individuals to connect to their novel ideas. Individual’s sense of what really matters, even playfulness, finds the freedom to look in new directions. This new freedom comes from the futility of old directions – the ones that were previously tried and true, that we fought hard to preserve and protect. Freedom has this weird relationship with the container in which it plays. When our regular choices fail us, they become the container, the places we don’t go, within which we have the freedom to move around and discover new choices. As long as those old choices were leading to successes, there was no need to seek alternatives


Possibly this was the problem with addressing climate change. Making money from fossil fuels and eating beef and a consumer society with a linear economy were all producing benefits people didn’t want to give up. As soon as we were all forced to stay home more, we had the space to notice the beauty of nature, the emptiness of consumerism, the neglect of our relationships that dedication to work requires. Our minds are now freer to imagine our lives in different ways. There was some suffering involved in reaching this place, and, it has lead to some connections and reconnections that may increase our resilience and sense of meaning in our lives in 2021 and beyond. From the isolation we have discovered a deep inky pool that we can shine our lights into.


This new world  – the world of circular power – often includes a place of discomfort. This is its nature, even in the best of times.  Transformation, falling in love, creativity and artistic ventures all start with a period of awkwardly stepping into the unknown. There is an activation energy to abandon the comfort of the known, and step into discomfort, to wander aimlessly for a while, reaching for something that has yet to take shape. Our best tools for this world are a fascination for novelty and curiosity for what we have an opportunity to learn, explore deeply and reflect upon. Our biggest power tool is taking life in through our senses, with the eyes of love, and connecting to the feelings that arise. Notice what you care about and take that inspiration and turn it into something physical in the world. Choose what good you want to see happen in the world and help it to grow rather than focusing on pushing back against what you don’t like and seeking to punish those involved.  This is so important because the wolf you feed with your attention will grow.


With our individual connection to what we would like to rebuild, we create sparks of light. The like-minded sparks find each other (often with the help of good circular leadership) and form a glow, a glow that keeps expanding in unexpected ways.


This is circular power. It begins with knowing yourself – including the things that bring you discomfort and compel you to make meaning of them. If we explore thee places with compassion, a desire to create beauty, to find reconnection, it will grow and cause transformation in a universally beneficial way. These sparks of light become cumulative and have the power to create a world driven to produce joy and well-being.


We will find a new global equilibrium because the COVID 19 crisis has activated circular power. A new set of driving values will find their place. Then we can return to linear power to preserve and protect these new values.


If suffering is optional, don’t do it. During the COVID 19 pandemic suffering has often not been optional. It has required us to abandon our economy driven values and move inward, into our homes, places of isolation, and into our inner worlds of reflection. The virus made us abandon our old routines and think more about our lives, what we care about individually, the quality of our relationships, the nature of our communities, and the leadership of our countries.


Linear power (ability to assert our will even against resistance) was king before the pandemic. It was suiting us well with its promise of everyone’s ability to achieve their dreams by setting a clear goal, making a plan, and working hard to execute it. But linear power, as symbolized by the accumulation of money, was becoming exclusively available by the few at the top. Once some win a few times, they have the resources to keep shaping the outcomes in their favour and it becomes impossible for others to compete. Linear economic power has reached this extreme, and it has spread into social and political power. It has reached the point of causing so much suffering that there will be an inevitable rise of circular power.


Circular power comes from knowing yourself, being yourself, and supporting others in doing the same. Covid 19, with the pause from an economy driven society, has accelerated the awakening of circular power. We have seen massive amounts of care being provided by people who make low incomes and it has caused us to reflect on who we are as a society, and the flaws in a system that places making money over the well-being of people. The courageous generosity of cashiers, janitorial staff, elder’s care workers, truck drivers and so many more have awakened our humanity. They kept providing essential services for the good of everyone. I feel a heightened sense of gratitude for everyone who has made it possible for me to stay fed and sheltered and basically happy in these very difficult times. There has been a constant outpouring of this gratitude through hearts pasted in the windows, roadside signs, nightly cheers. We are all aware of our connections and interdependence -our shared humanity- in a more vibrant way now.  As we move into 2021, our greatest success will be found when these values find their new place alongside the objectivity of an economy driven society. We have not suffered in vain.