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Suffer for a Reason

This week I have met no one, and do not ever expect to meet anyone, who has not been negatively affected by the virus. It is true that some people I have talked to are in many ways experiencing some relief because they do not have to engage in activities (e.g., school, socializing, elective surgery) that otherwise brought them stress and anxiety, but even these people are experiencing hardship because of the virus. Without going into detail to make my case, I will assume the reader can at least understand the point I am trying to make and suspend belief that I am using hubris. The point is, this is hard for all of us and no one is spared.

I have been thinking about a way to describe what people are experiencing that is all encompassing and brings more unity than divisiveness because we could always benefit from having more common ground to stand on. Some people call it hardship, and others say struggle or stress. People are experiencing fatigue, boredom, anxiety, or apathy. All of these experiences are ones that rational people would be relieved of, if they could. All of these terms are forms of suffering. And this is not an exhaustive list.

We are all suffering in some way. The details of suffering are subjective: how much, in what way, when and how often; but the objective fact is that we all suffer, and we are all suffering because of this virus. We are all united in our suffering. So what does this direct us to do?

Sometimes I describe my job as a Psychologist, and especially my therapeutic role as that of "helping people to think about things," so this post is to help people think about suffering, and specifically what to do about it; and even more specifically, how to make sense of it. I have written elsewhere that making sense of our experience goes a long way toward providing some relief. In this case, making sense of your suffering can provide some relief, not necessarily to the suffering, but to how you feel about the suffering. Some people in my industry call this the Second Dart-how you feel about a hardship can be as devastating as or even worse than the hardship itself (the First Dart).

How do you make sense of suffering? What is the purpose, if there is one, of suffering? What causes suffering? Why does suffering exist? I am asking these questions as broadly as I can to include as many people in this process as possible. For example, even if you conclude there is no purpose to suffering (question 2) you can still try to make sense of it (question 1). If you do not want to think about suffering (all of the questions are pointless), you are out of luck because we are all suffering. I have, in fact, encountered many people recently in the wake of this virus who state that they are not suffering. In fact, several of them state they are "in their element" under this threat and the resulting restrictions. All of these people report experiences, from low energy, increased family conflict, poor sleep (and the list goes on) that suggest they are suffering. I discovered that you have to ignore a lot of information to conclude you are not suffering during this time.

There is no shortage of explanations for suffering, if you go and look for it. I want to provide a non-exhaustive but broad range to give some examples of what I mean regarding "making sense of suffering," and how to respond. It should be noted that my summary is just a summary, and largely subjective. Do your own study of these issues to develop your own summaries. I am listing things the way I am for the sake of brevity and to give an example of what the conclusion to this process might look like.

Scientific: The virus is a threat to your health, and your brain is responding to that threat (i.e., anxiety). Use medication, meditation and deep breathing to calm your anxiety response.

Religious: Suffering is God's punishment for bad behavior. Be a better person to live a better life so God punishes you less.

Political: Suffering is the result of the over-dependence of the average individual on the government. Become more independent and self-sufficient to reduce your suffering by handling more problems yourself.

Economic: Suffering is the result of waste and inequalities. Reduce the negative impacts of globalization.

This list is obviously not exhaustive or sufficient, but I have studied what many have to say about suffering and have attempted to summarize broadly to give a sense of what I am suggesting the reader do. Make sense of suffering, and I think you should be ambitious with your pursuit. I think you should look for an answer that makes sense to others, explains all suffering, and suggests a productive and proactive response to suffering. You might not like your answer but it should be satisfying on a certain level, even if unsettling. It shouldn't necessarily take a thesis to explain, but it should be profound. It should answer the "now what?" question, and continue to give you things to think about into the future. It should address the stress of both the first and second dart, mentioned above. And I assure you that the process itself will be life changing. Most importantly, however, do not settle for insufficient answers in this case. This is not a "good enough" situation where you compromise on what to watch on TV tonight. Be patient and demanding with this process.

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