Suffering results not so much from the bad things that have happened, are happening or might happen to us, but the way in which we regard those things, the meaning we give to them. Essentially, if we regard them as intolerable, unmanageable and unacceptable, we suffer more. If we regard them as things which, somehow, we can tolerate, manage and accept, we suffer less. It’s about an attitude of tolerance versus intolerance.

Can I do this?

It’s as if for every problem that comes toward us, we respond by filing it either in the cabinet on the left, labeled “things I cannot accept,” or the cabinet on the right, labeled “things I can accept.” A cabinet stuffed with “unacceptables” will radiate an energy that causes pain. The more effective we are at moving files from the cabinet on the left to the one on the right, the more our suffering is reduced.

At this time of crisis, people across the globe are doing things they previously thought they could not do. How easily we might have said, “I can’t live with this person 24/7.” “I can’t go without seeing that person for months.” “I can’t live without sports.” “ I can’t survive without my vacation.” “I can’t work from home.” “I can’t lose my job.” “I can’t lose that much of my savings.”

We’re doing it

Well here we are doing many of these things. And so many of us are doing amazingly well with it to boot. To shift these experiences from the “I can’t possibly” category to the “Well, I guess I can” category does not necessarily mean that we feel happy about it. We’re still allowed to feel our feelings. It’s okay to feel afraid, sad, loss, lonely, disappointed, angry and all the rest. The suffering comes not from feeling our unpleasant feelings, but from trying not to.

Some people will get through the coronavirus pandemic with scratches and bruises and recover quickly. Their files can be moved from the “intolerable” cabinet to the “tolerable” cabinet rather easily. “Oh well, I guess we’ll have to postpone our trip for a few months.” But some of us will experience devastating losses. And some have already experienced personal tragedies of such magnitude, that coming to terms with them and learning to regard them as remotely “acceptable” may be a lifelong process.

Crises and opportunities

We all know that every crisis brings with it an opportunity for growth and renewal. And the bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity. We now have a great opportunity to think more deeply about what it means to find courage to change the things we can and the serenity to accept the things we can’t. And for those of us who may be blessed to be only marginally affected by this pandemic, we’ll have a unique opportunity to step outside of ourselves and to be generous, in spirit and deed, to those whose wounds are deeper.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Mohammad Ali Jafarian on Unsplash 

Articles

Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.