There is a quote by Dalai Lama that says
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.
And what it means is that no matter how perfect your life is there are so many things out of our control that you will experience pain sooner or later.
But, even though we cannot avoid pain, suffering is entirely up to us.
Suffering, in this context, means fighting the reality of pain, instead of accepting it.
Let’s clarify things a little bit.
What is reality
Reality is essentially a list of things that are true in this moment of time.
From things true in this exact moment like I am sitting at a computer and writing, there is a mug of tea next to my computer screen and it is a sunny day outside, to some bigger picture things like I am 37 years old.
And as we know things in life change with time. So at different times in my life, there were different realities that I lived in.
Fifteen years ago I was a single student, not employed, I had some difficulty walking because of having polio as a kid but didn’t have to use any walking aids.
Five years ago I was single again, I was employed and was still walking without a walking aid.
A year ago I was married and expecting a baby, I was employed but now I was walking with a cane.
Very different realities.
Why do we fight reality?
It comes down to one simple thing: we don’t want it to be true.
We don’t want it to be true and we fight it by letting ourselves suffer because of it.
Sometimes though, the reality in our mind is different than reality as it is.
When I was younger I was very aware that my body is different. Whenever I would walk next to a storefront and see myself I would see all the things that I didn’t like and it would just reinforce how I felt about my body.
Since these differences were so clear to me I assumed that everyone else sees the same.
First time I realized that might not be true was when a new acquaintance, someone I’ve already seen several times in a social situation, asked me “Did you hurt your foot?”.
I got confused and almost angry.
What does he mean did I hurt my foot? Isn’t it obvious that something is wrong?
It turned out that it wasn’t.
I told him about polio and he said that he just noticed that I had a limp so he was curious what happened since the last time.
All of those things that I saw in the storefront or the mirror, so big and obvious in my mind, didn’t even register for him until that day. And even then, he just thought I hurt my foot.
It’s important to remember that things aren’t always as they seem and keep an open mind.
Other times, we know what is true but we just don’t like it. It makes us feel uncomfortable, we think it’s stupid… whatever the “reason” the fact is that something is one way and we would like it to be another way.
For example, me walking with a cane.
Up until 3 years ago, I walked without a cane or any other walking device and then one day I sprained my ankle in the street. Because my muscles and nerves were already weaker the recovery wasn’t full so from that moment on I had to use the cane.
Let me tell you, that reality was hard to accept.
I really really really didn’t want to use the cane.
First of all, I already had a lot of body image issues because of polio and adding a cane to the mix just felt like a big flashing arrow pointing to me saying “LOOK, A GUY WITH A DISABILITY!!!”.
A bit dramatic, yes, but it took me years to accept how I looked and walked and now this happens.. it felt like all of that work was for nothing and that I will never recover mentally.
I also feared that people would treat me differently like I’m somehow worth less now with a cane.
I spent hours and days thinking about how I wished that this didn’t happen to me and had a ton of “What if..” questions about how I could’ve avoided this.
“If only I did something differently it could’ve been different.
If I didn’t cross the street there.
If I didn’t go to that ATM but the other one.
If I went to the office instead of working in a cafe that day.
If I had a different job where I didn’t have a choice of where I work.
If my girlfriend was in town that day instead of camping somewhere.
If I had a different girlfriend.
It went on and on, going to ridiculous places, trying to think about all the things that if they were different I might not be on that street that day.
An endless loop that didn’t help at all just got me sad about all the things I couldn’t do (or thought that I couldn’t do) now and all the things I could do if this didn’t happen.
I was fighting this new reality with all I had but it just wouldn’t budge.
It just made me more upset and took away all the time and energy that I could’ve used to figure out what this means for me and how I was going to deal with this new situation.
And this fight wasn’t something I decided to do, it was an emotional reaction to a sudden and painful change in reality.
It took me months to realize that I was going nowhere with this kind of thinking and there is only one thing to do.
I had to accept this or it would consume me.
What is acceptance
One of the definitions of the term “accept” says
“believe or come to recognize (a proposition) as valid or correct.”
So to accept reality is to come to recognize it as true(valid or correct).
This can help set us free from all those “what if’s” and all that “if this weren’t true” thinking.
It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen again, but once we are clear on what is and what isn’t it’s easier to recognize the thinking that takes us away from reality.
Once our mind is not obsessing with these things we can calmly think about the reality we are in.
And we can decide if and how we want to deal with it.
We can respond to it, instead of reacting.
Or we can decide not to respond.
Is acceptance easy?
No, it’s not.
Like a lot of important things in life it’s simple, but not easy.
Accepting the cane wasn’t easy.
It required that I face my beliefs and fears. One of them being that this is just one step towards the wheelchair, and that terrified me.
It required that I question my identity. I was running from this “disability” label for a long time, and now I’m showing it to all to see.
It required that I accept those things that I didn’t like.
Was it worth it?
That girlfriend I mentioned before, thinking what if I was with someone else, is now my wife and we have an awesome 10 month old baby. I don’t know if that would’ve happened had I stayed stuck in that “in only this didn’t happen” state of mind.
And even if it did happen and I was still obsessing over that, I don’t know if I would enjoy things that are happening now, like hanging out with our baby or a recent family trip to Turkey or going to a music gig with a friend, as much as I do.
Sure, I’d probably enjoy it to a point, but there would always be a voice saying “it could’ve been different”.
And I don’t want to have to listen to that voice.
I’d rather listen to my baby laugh 🙂