This post is aimed at otherwise mentally healthy, neurotypical human beings. I am not here to bash people struggling with depression, anxiety, other debilitating mental illnesses, or those who are hardwired differently. Although, if you’re feeling particularly down at the moment, perhaps suffering from depression, you can still read it. It might bring about a transformation in how you see the world.
For everyone else, including me, we have to ask ourselves whether it is right to blame anyone or anything outside of ourselves for feeling unhappy.
There’s No Candy Here
This post is not going to give you any hacks for feeling great all the time. I’m not even going to give you what we used to call a ‘sh*t sandwich’ back in the days when I worked in advertising sales – lead with something negative, follow up with a small nugget of good news, and finish with some unwelcome news. Nope. I’m cooking burnt toast. How do you like your stale water?
I’m Sorry for Your Loss
To be clear, provided you don’t fit the criteria outlined above, when I say you are responsible for your unhappiness, there are no exceptions. I say this as a father who lost his eldest son three months ago, and from my current perspective, losing everyone I love in a disaster wouldn’t make any difference. If I were mistaken for someone else, kidnapped by members of a drug cartel, flayed and dismembered, I would still stand by this statement: no one else is to blame for your unhappiness but you!
Pain and Unhappiness are NOT Interchangeable
To get where I am going with this, you must appreciate that when I talk about unhappiness, I am not talking about pain. Being skinned alive is an experience that I absolutely don’t want to try.
F**k me, I hope I haven’t jinxed myself here – I once referred to the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his only son as an introduction to the Buddhist concept of impermanence and had to drink my own medicine when my son was taken from me. He already had a tumour growing in his brain, even though none of us knew about it, so I’m not going to take the rap for it just because I wrote a blog post. Oh, and I’m not going to get mad at God, the universe, Jesus, or anyone else either. You’ll see why shortly.
Pain is an Unavoidable Sensation
I have the same tolerance for pain as anyone else. If I step on a LEGO piece, barefoot, I turn the air bluer than one of Samuel L Jackson’s characters having a heated argument in a Quentin Tarantino film. There’s also very little turning the other cheek goes on over here. You slap me on one cheek, and I’m going to give you a pasting. OK, I’m labouring the point now… if someone slaps you and you can diffuse the situation without slapping them back, please go for that option. There’s already enough bloodshed in the world.
Suffering Over Suffering
I don’t know if he coined the phrase, but the first time I heard ‘suffering over suffering’, it was from the lips of my Tai Chi teacher, Steve Rowe; someone who most definitely knows a thing or two about suffering, having had his fair share of physical trauma to get through in recent years. Here’s my take on suffering over suffering. Let’s imagine the LEGO scenario I just mentioned.
Don’t Step on the LEGO!
Most parents don’t need to imagine how excruciating it is to stand on a LEGO piece barefoot. It’s practically a rite of passage for us, like changing nappies or having to get up in the middle of the night. The thing about LEGO pain is that it tends to be intense but short-lived. There’s the initial shock as the sensation becomes your whole world:
‘So, I called the dishwasher company today, and they said they could send out an engin… Arghh… HOLY F**K! Jesus!’
Then, as the pain subsides, the suffering begins:
‘Oh my God! That really hurt (past tense). My foot is killing me (no, there’s still some residual pain). Why does Billy keep leaving these LEGO pieces on the stairs? How many times do I have to ask him to put these b**tard things away?’ and so it goes. We prolong the agony. We suffer over the suffering.
What’s Your LEGO?
Now, let’s substitute the LEGO pain for something else. Take your pick – a relationship break-up, infidelity, bereavement, job loss, natural disaster, theft. There are loads to choose from, aren’t there? These are all prime candidates for unhappiness.
Relationship break-ups are painful, and emotional pain is just as real as any LEGO piece, just different. It can take a while before the body sheds the trauma. There will be tears, triggers, and moments of regret. We will miss the person we lost. Being made redundant can lead to genuine financial hardship. It might take months to find the money to buy something that was stolen. Such is the pain of life. These pains are natural and mostly unavoidable. But suffering over suffering is different.
The suffering starts when we replay the stories in our minds, and we mull over how unfair stuff is and how badly done-to we are. Why did she sleep with Joey, the postman? I can’t believe she took the budgie. This feels so terrible. I’m never going to love anyone again. Who’s going to see me? How could this happen to my son?
Life Isn’t Fair?
I’m sorry. I did warn you that I was giving you burnt toast.
Crying about the inevitable disappointments of life is not going to make any difference. It is a waste of time and mental energy. Doris is not going to come back to you because you’re miserable. No amount of sadness, guilt, or anger will bring about a resurrection, and life is going to be as unfair tomorrow as it is today and as it was yesterday.
Accept the Things You Cannot Change
You might be aware that the tough part is recognising the bits you can’t change as opposed to the bits you can. That’s where wisdom comes into play. I’m not the wisest kid on the block, but life’s taught me some useful lessons.
When a relationship is over – genuinely past the point of no return – you can’t change it. You can’t change the other person either. The sooner you can accept it, the better. Letting go will allow you to consider the things you can change. Letting go will allow you to move on.
Bereavement is rough. It’s difficult to escape from pain and if you succeed in burying your feelings and marching on as though nothing’s happened, you’ll fare worse in the long run.
- Accept every part of the process.
- Accept that your loved one is not coming back.
- Accept that you are not going to heal overnight.
- Accept that crying is a natural part of that healing process.
- Accept that sometimes you won’t be able to focus on the most basic tasks.
- Accept that you might not feel like doing some of the things you used to do because they remind you of your loss.
This is not meant to be a counselling post, and the bullets above shouldn’t be taken as expert guidance or as absolutes. I am sharing my perspective. Take from it what you will. The point is that in any unpleasant, traumatic, life-changing situation, there will be many things that you can’t change, and you must accept them. Only acceptance will free you from extra, unnecessary suffering over suffering.
What Can You Change?
If there is any butter to make your burnt toast a little more palatable, then know that there are always plenty of things that you can change. Broken relationships teach us a lot about ourselves. Did we sleepwalk into a relationship with the wrong person? Does our behaviour need to change? If this is the tenth time someone’s walked out on you for cutting your toenails at the dinner table, maybe you should reflect on whether the problem is them or you.
You lost your job. You were fired or made redundant. You might feel as though you are on the scrap heap, but I will tell you one thing for sure. If you accept that as your reality – that you’re a has-been, that you’re too old, that no one is going to take you on, that it’s so unfair that you lost your other job – things are not going to get any better and that, my friend, will be on you.
You are at a crossroads right now. You can continue reading or you can go and do something more useful. You are always at a crossroads. Living is a process of continuous decision-making. What you do, what you say, and even what you think are all choices that are under your control. Sure, negative thoughts can and do arise and you’d have to be some kind of highly skilled Buddhist monk to stop them, but you don’t have to offer them a chair and give them a sandwich.
By remaining as mindful as you can and taking as much conscious control of your choices, moment to moment, you can bring about better outcomes and increased happiness. Pain is unavoidable. That kind of suffering is unavoidable, but you don’t have to suffer over the suffering.
The Wisest Choice You Can Make Right Now
From the start, I have conceded that sh*t happens – ill health, death, unemployment, emotional upheaval, etc. – and I have admitted that the pain that arises with these misfortunes is unavoidable. What if I were to tell you that you can significantly lessen that pain?
Remember, I’ve said that your unhappiness is nobody else’s fault. That’s a bold statement, so let me spell out the main reason that we cause our own unhappiness – delusion.
- No one owes you anything, not your parents, your best mates, God, or the universe. The longer you carry on thinking they do, the more disappointed you will become. Shoulda, coulda, woulda gets you nowhere, and that applies to other people’s behaviour. This links to the next bullet.
- Life is not fair. Show me the written contract that tells you that life is fair. It’s not. One of your parents might run off with your partner, your dog might bite you on the dangly bits, and you might get some very unusual and annoying disease.
- No one else gives a f*ck about your problems. Your mother probably does, but there’s no guarantee. You should accept that any help, compassion, or empathy you get from others is a bonus – not a given.
- You are going to die. How crap it gets as you head towards the exit depends. It’s like an unlucky dip. You might just go in your sleep after an episode of the Housewives of Atlanta, or you could go through years of struggle. I am not trying to upset anyone here. I just want to give you the truth as bluntly as I can.
- There is no world order. As much as you might think your parents will go before you and your kids will be the last to leave, it doesn’t always work that way. Know this.
- Anything can happen, and it does. People spend their lives chasing the ‘promised land’, whether that’s to become a millionaire, pay off the mortgage, find love, found a unicorn, or whatever. You might die on the way, be extremely disappointed with the outcome, or never get anywhere near your goal, so don’t pin your happiness on anything outside of yourself.
- Nothing outside of you will make you happy. You might think it does. There are plenty of things to experience that will make us smile, but that kind of happiness is just like LEGO pain. It’s temporary. Real happiness is self-generated.
- Expecting anything is a mistake. Have no expectations. None… except that your life will consist of pleasure, pain, and eventually death. If you’re lucky, you will experience less pain, and your end will be painless.
Still with me?
I lied. Yes, I have given you burnt toast and the water is stale, but for those who are open-minded, there is some chocolate spread for that toast.
Once you embrace the truth – that’s every single one of the bullets above, in my opinion – you release yourself from a lifetime of suffering over suffering. Not only that, but you will significantly reduce the amount of inevitable pain because, paradoxically, even though I said to expect nothing, when the sh*t hits the fan, you will have kind of expected it because life’s not fair and anything can happen.
Once you embrace the truth, you can appreciate everything, even the kicks in the ribs. Life’s a party. Look around you. Humankind has known this since the beginning of time – that life is a cycle of birth and death. Look up the story of Buddha if you don’t know it (and the four noble truths) – beautiful teaching.
Out of all the existences that you could have, you are living here, now, as a human being. What an adventure. Don’t be a spoilt child and spit your dummy out. Not. For. Any. Reason. Your life, no matter how distressing you sometimes find it, is a miracle.
Love the World
Imagine if every single living being was your baby. Imagine how much love you would feel. Society teaches us to love others, to care about others, to be kind, to be considerate, to be compassionate, but then it programs us to separate ourselves from others: He’s a friend, she’s better than her because I fancy her, he’s my son, she’s someone else’s daughter, I can’t stand them…
If you can embrace impermanence; if you can embrace your mortality; if you can embrace the uncertainty and injustice of it all, you can also embrace solidarity. You can feel, at heart level, that we are all in this crazy world together.
I am no different from you, a child, a dog, a cat, or an ant. I can kid myself that my impact is greater than the ant’s but eventually, our species will be no more, and everything we have built on this living planet will be swallowed up on it for the scientists of some future intelligent life form to discover.
If we can all accept that our unhappiness is our fault, there is more hope than ever that we can make this world a much happier place.
Thanks for Reading
Thanks for reading this, admittedly, brutal article. I rarely swear when writing in my name (as opposed to ghostwriting), but I felt it suited the hard-hitting tone that I wanted to project. Again, although I warned that this would be a no-holds-barred piece of dry toast from the start, I apologise if anything I have said has caused pain or triggered you. I wrote this from a place of love and, I hope, authority. As a grieving father, if I can’t say it as it is, who can?