Does suffering have a purpose? Learning to suffer constructively

Photo by Jorge Gonzalez on Unsplash

We were taught a great many things in school. How to complete assignments, how to obey our teachers, how to study for exams.

But we never learned the important things.

Like how to love, how to find fulfilment, how to persevere, how to be a good person. As far as life skills are concerned, our formal education failed us miserably.

One important skill we did not learn in school is how to suffer.

Types of suffering

Look inside yourself and you will see that you are already suffering in some way simply by being alive. Each time we fail we suffer a little. Each time we are rejected we suffer a little. In fact, each time things don’t go our way we suffer a little.

Some suffering is constructive.

When we have the courage to face pain to achieve progress, there is purpose behind the suffering. For example, if I want to become a better singer and I go through hours of vocal training to become a great singer. The suffering has direction and meaning.

But some suffering is counter-productive, especially when driven by fear.

Many of us suffer to maintain status quo in our lives. For example, we remain in a job we dislike because we fear the unknown. Or we might always pretend to be happy in front of people because we fear them knowing our true feelings. Each time we deny our true selves to project an image to someone else, we suffer. Each time we hang onto the known instead of bravely facing the unknown, we suffer. This type of suffering serves to protect us and keep us within our comfort zones. So it is a type of counter-productive suffering because it does not move us towards our goals.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. – Thich Nhat Hanh

How suffering can be constructive

Constructive suffering is grounded in truth. It is about actively testing our assumptions against objective reality.

For example, if I want to be a writer, I constantly submit my writing to publications to check if my writing is at the required standard. Or if I want to be a good public speaker, I constantly practice public speaking in front of a group to get feedback about my impact.

Constructive suffering requires that we continually get input from the real world to verify our mental models and internal frameworks. We must be willing and able to subject ourselves to stringent self-examination, to shine light on ourselves.

This process brings suffering because we often find that whatever we believed might have been inaccurate.

I once believed that I should carry my burdens alone, and seldom reached out to people for help when I needed it. I always kept things inside myself and never let anybody know what I was going through. One day I was feeling down, and decided to try reaching out to my father to share with him how I was feeling, even though I did not know how he would respond. To my surprise he comforted me and drove down to where I was to have breakfast with me.

Letting go of limiting and destructive beliefs about ourselves and the world is the outcome of constructive suffering.

Purpose of suffering

Constructive suffering helps us better understand reality and truth, which gives us the power to get what we want out of life.

The world operates on certain laws and principles, and those who are most able to accurately perceive these laws will act consistently with how the world works, thereby achieving success in their endeavours.

For example, a boss might want to improve productivity by creating many rules to micro-manage his workers. The workers get mired in process and lose motivation. The truth is people feel more motivated at work when they they have autonomy. By going against a law about how people work, the boss created an outcome he did not intend.

Therefore, constructive suffering moves us towards our goals, while counter-productive suffering either keeps us where we are, or moves us away from our goals.

The more we are in touch with reality and how things work, the greater our chances of success.

How to suffer

As constructive suffering puts us in touch with truth and brings us closer to success, we know whether our suffering is constructive if we become more effective as people.

Pursuit of external success

We can suffer in pursuit of external success, such as a successful career or a successful business. In so doing we continually test our mastery of the laws of commerce and our proficiency at work. We figure out what the world wants and needs, and we learn to create value. We learn to navigate office politics, organisational structure and systems, and become proficient at navigating the external world.

For example, Ray Dalio was a highly successful hedge fund manager who generated return for investors even through the financial crisis. His investment strategy was based on a solid understanding of how the economy worked. He said the economy was a cyclical machine, and he read the signs pointing to cyclical downturn. He believed that truth was the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.

Pursuit of self-knowledge

We can also suffer constructively in the pursuit of self-knowledge. Pursuing self-knowledge requires us to be extremely honest with ourselves, to constantly seek our truth, to examine how we feel and how we perceive the world. So we become masters of ourselves.

The more we go along the path of self-knowledge, we more we become clear of what brings us meaning and fulfilment in life. Self-knowledge puts us in touch with the core of who we are and we might even discover our callings and purpose. We start to live our lives in alignment with what we truly value. Instead of seeking validation from outside, we start to become our own internal compass, we know who we are and what we stand for.

More importantly, self-knowledge gives us mastery over ourselves. Instead of being controlled by our preferences, likes, dislikes, and fears, we become strong-willed individuals able to triumph over our circumstances.

Pursuit of mastery

We can also suffer constructively by mastering a craft. Mastering a craft requires us to both transcend ourselves and translate that mastery into form in the real world.

For example, Bruce Lee was a master of martial arts, and he was also a master of himself. In his writings were deep insights into the truth of human nature and himself. He wrote that, “All knowledge leads to self-knowledge.” Martial arts was his way of truly and honestly expressing himself.

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. – Bruce Lee

Mastery is self-knowledge applied to achieve real outcomes in the world. Pursuing mastery requires dedication and commitment. What are we willing to suffer for? What outcomes do we want to create? How do our values manifest in the real world? Where do our gifts and talents lie?

What is worth your suffering?

We are only able to endure constructive suffering if there is something we value more highly than pain.

So dig deep to find out for yourself:

What are my values?

What do I stand for?

Who am I?

What is my truth?

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. – Viktor Frankl

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