by Dr. Anna Braverman
My work with young people – people in the “climbing” stage of their lives, has crystallized for me a phenomenon that I think exists everywhere in our society – the misuse of suffering as a marker for effort, success, worthiness, etc.
Let me explain what I mean:
Think of a role you play in your life that matters a lot to you. It might be your role of a parent, a student, a practitioner of your profession, a citizen, a friend, an artist – these are just a few (and we all play multiple roles in our lives). Now, in each of these areas there are some markers of success that are easily quantifiable. For instance, if you think back to a time in your life when you were a student (e.g. in school) you will probably recall that grades are one such quantifiable marker of success – it may not be easy to get an A, but it is quite easy to define what an A is and you can easily know whether you got it or not. It is also easy to quantify how much time, in hours and minutes, you are spending with your child/spouse/friend etc. For that matter, it is easy to quantify how much gross time you spend doing anything (stay in the office, for example).
The challenge is that some of these quantifiable markers of success are not necessarily the most meaningful, important or personally relevant. Grades are a compellingly simple reward system, but their relevance fades once we leave academic settings, or advance in them beyond the undergraduate level. Time spent is also simple, but if you think about it, it is a very crude measure of actual effort and even less good as a predictor of the value of someone’s contribution to any cause.
One thing that tends to be true of most people is that they struggle with ambiguity and tend to be driven to reduce anxiety-provoking doubt. Therefore, people on average, no matter how fervently they proclaim that they do not like to be formally evaluated (e.g., tested), tend to struggle with tasks that offer no built-in way to evaluate success or progress. And what do people do when an obvious way to measure progress does not exist? They try to create a way.
Unfortunately, it seems that there is a process in our society (and perhaps it is not unique to our culture – that may be a topic for another blog) that compels people to view suffering as an acceptable way to measure success. This makes a lot of sense. After all, what really does it mean to spend QUALITY time with a child? That is a deeply philosophical question that requires deep reflection on what kind of person that child is, what kind of person you are, what each of your skill sets are, what both you and this child are most in need of in this particular moment in time, what your general goals for parenting are, what kind of adult you want this child to become, how long the child’s attention span is, and much, much more. Suppose that a deep reflection on all of these questions leads you to believe that this child would benefit most from seeing you take care of yourself so that they feel that they are allowed to take care of themselves too. What if quality time for this particular child right now means seeing you give yourself a manicure? But can you be sure that this is true? Can you be sure that this conclusion was not driven by your selfish desire to have a manicure?
The truth is, that we can have a pretty strong hunch, but we can never be 100% sure that we are succeeding, because almost everything in life that is meaningful (like raising children, building a career, being creative) is also complicated. But somehow, there seems to be a process in people’s minds that says that if they have suffered or made sacrifices while doing something it is more likely to be the right thing to do than if they enjoyed it. Therefore, people seem to be more likely to conclude that if they give up their date night to spend an evening with their child (whose only desire that night may be to chat with a friend), that is more likely to make them feel like better parents than giving themselves a manicure.
Even the way we talk reflects this bias. For instance, it is not very common (probably because it is not always viewed as socially acceptable) to openly compliment oneself on how WELL one has done something. However, it is perfectly acceptable to imply that one has worked on something more hours (and slept fewer hours) than anyone else at the office. It is not socially acceptable to praise oneself as a parent, but it is acceptable to expound on all the sacrifices one has made for one’s child and the suffering one has accrued while making said sacrifices.
I wish there were an easy way to get out of this pattern of thinking, but there may not be. After all, using suffering as a proxy is a shortcut, and people create shortcuts for a reason – because the alternative road may be long or complicated. The alternative to using this shortcut, in my opinion, is to reflect deeply on one’s values and goals, and to be mindful of what one truly wants to see as an outcome of a particular action or activity. This may require a good measure of honesty with oneself and general self-awareness. However, the benefits are considerable. Imagine what it would be like to give yourself permission to leave work on time, to take the weekend off without guilt, to invite a babysitter on a night you really need to recharge, to accept help from a loved one, etc.
I encourage all of us (myself included) to reflect on the moments of suffering in our lives and try to be mindful of which ones are driven by the inevitable pain of being human, which we cannot avoid (e.g. by painful life events), and which ones are instances of needless suffering driven by the desire to quantify success/progress in areas of our lives that may be inherently not quantifiable. This might be a necessary first step to suffering a little less.