I’ve spent a lot of time lately reflecting on the idea of suffering. Yes, I realize that’s a weird statement to make, but I’m not doing this as a way to torture myself. Rather it serves as a way to better manage my suffering down the road.
Here’s the deal. No ones like to suffer. Suffering can come in many shapes and forms. It can be physical. Perhaps you have a crippling disease or sickness. It can be emotional too. For example, we’re all familiar with the many ways families or loved ones can create strife in our lives. Whatever form it comes in though, it can have positive benefits on the other side. It can also have a catastrophic impact and alter the course of your life forever. I’m not here to try to convince you that suffering is good. It’s not – even if you can make some positive out of it. The simple fact, however, is that suffering is a fact of human life. We all will suffer. Suffering – or better said the events that lead to suffering – will find us. Never has a human walked this earth without encountering suffering at some point.
Because of that, my reflection on suffering hasn’t be dreading what is surely to come at some point in time, but rather to prepare myself for when that suffering presents itself. Let’s say it again – suffering will find us. And we need to be prepared. Because the difference between surviving the suffering and letting it cripple us largely comes down to how well prepared we are.
One of my favorite things to do is teach, and I’ve had a lot of opportunity to teach in universities and business schools in the past few years. I’m always asked my students about secrets to success. Of course, there is no secret to success, but rather a bit of luck and a hell of a lot of hard work. When I give that answer, I can tell that it’s not really understood, and the students seem rather puzzled and discontent with that answer. Then it dawned on me: they’ve never suffered. This is rather concerning, but incredible telling. Our culture now is always looking for a hack or a shortcut. Put differently, we’re not willing to challenge and stretch ourselves to get to our desired outcome.
Deliberately introducing trying circumnutates to our lives is vital for success. What’s more though – and substantially more important – is that introducing this into our lives prepares us for the suffering that will ultimately find us. Looking at the younger generation of professionals, they flat out don’t understand suffering. For most, they’ve grown up in a culture that has insulated them from any and all suffering imaginable, and as a result, the demands of adult life – both personal and professional are overwhelming. The data shows this quite clearly as we examine the skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety.
Frankly, I was raised like most of these kids. I had few true stresses growing up. It was only during my senior year of high school and freshman year of college that I learned what it was like to suffer. For whatever reason, a lightbulb when off in my head showing me that what was all-consuming to me was not all that different from what people in all walks of life were sure to encounter. It was here that I got deliberate about introducing suffering into my life. The idea was that the more I made myself suffer, the less I’d suffer when life chose to make me suffer – because I’d be prepared.
The old adage is spot on. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. We must find ways to improve ourselves via suffering. This can mean embarking on a week-long water-only fast, taking on a crazy new workout regimen, asking for an insanely challenging project at work, or even having that uncomfortable, but long overdue conversation with a loved one. Whatever it is, we must be well practiced at being uncomfortable, so that when the suffering is out of our control we are prepared to handle it and continue on with our lives.
Seneca is one of the fathers of Stoic philosophy. While he was incredibly well off and lived a life of extreme comfort, he would commonly force himself to live on the streets and go days without food and water. His idea was that whatever suffering life threw at him, he wanted to be prepared. There is incredible peace in that.
I’ve spoken about this from time to time, but years ago, my wife and I welcomed newborn twins well before their due date. Both were about the size of our hands when born and spent about three months in the NICU battling heart issues. This was suffering in a way I’d never experienced before. But what I learned is that in the midst of incredible stress like this, suffering can either make you better or it can ruin you. Because I had been deliberate about finding ways to suffer and stretch my limits earlier in life, I was able to unlock a much better version of myself over the course of those three months. Let’s be clear. It was not a pleasant time in our lives, but we managed and that’s because we were prepared.
Noah built the arc well before the storm, and we must build those same arcs in our own lives, because the storm is coming. We don’t know when, and we don’t know where, but we will be prepared.