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You Are Not in Control, But You Can Avoid Suffering

One of the most significant sources of unhappiness, stress, or just plain suffering in life is our tendency to believe we are in control. There are more than 8 billion humans on this planet, all making decisions that have cause and effect consequences that affect their environment, including the lives of other individuals. Look at the recent pandemic with the spread of COVID-19. Here were individuals who made decisions and exhibited behaviors in China, that ultimately rippled across the world and impacted your life directly in another country. Let me be clear, this is not a conversation on fault, but universal truth. When an individual exhibits a behavior, it has a ripple effect on the World around them. Something as simple as one individual checking their phone for a split second on the highway can result in a multi-car collision; none of those involved planned or expected to be in an auto accident that day. You can walk out the door and expect to simply walk to the nearest store, however it could be closed, someone could try to rob you, you could trip and break your ankle, or numerous other events outside of your expectation and, ultimately, your control.

The point is life is like an ocean and we are each the captain of a ship. We can decide to steer right or left, slow down or speed up, but if there is a storm then the ocean will determine where we go. We can influence a situation, but never are we truly in control. What does this have to do with pain? Well, it has more to do with suffering, the experience we add to pain when it is unnecessary. If you share your feelings with another individual and they do not reciprocate, it can create emotional pain. If you stub your toe walking up the stairs it can create physical pain. These are inherent parts of life, pain is not something we can, nor typically should, avoid. When we attach anger, frustration, self-pity, or other negative emotions to an experience, that is when we suffer. When we do not experience what we expect to occur and become fearful or upset that we are not in control of the universe, that is when we suffer.

The ultimate solution to minimize or eliminate suffering, not pain, is to accept that we are never truly in control, and this is okay. If I am driving to work and someone hits me from behind at a stop light I have two main options, accept it occurred and focus on minimizing the negative consequences, or attach frustration, fear, or anger to the situation and increase the negative experience. The event has occurred, it is over, being angry that it happened only keeps us stuck in that moment and unable to move forward or even learn and grow from the experience. Accepting it happened and we have no control to undo it does not mean we agree it is okay that it occurred, it just means we accept our limitations to control the universe and those that live in it; we have no ability to control anything outside of ourselves.

So, when you experience something that causes you pain in any form, the goal is to practice accepting it occurred, sitting with it for a moment to acknowledge it and not try to avoid it, and then you have an opportunity to grow and learn. Growth occurs when we are uncomfortable, when we are comfortable, we do not look to make any changes. So experiencing a negative or painful event is an opportunity to become more resilient, practice acceptance, and grow stronger. Again, if something terrible happens to you then accepting it does not mean agreeing with it or that it was fair to have happened, it just means accepting the reality of the situation so you can continue to navigate life and not be consumed by the event(s). Being angry is a secondary emotion, it can only exist if fear (which includes threat) occurs first, and we do not want to be consumed by fear. So next time you experience any form of pain, take a moment to acknowledge what just happened, identify any steps you may be able to take to influence the situation in a positive direction, and work on accepting the results that are out of your control. You will still have a stubbed toe, but you will move through it much quicker and without suffering if you do not get angry at the pain.

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