There is a process going on inside me all the time that I don’t like to talk about, but which must be mentioned for the sake of completion. This is my identity of pain: the pattern of suffering that marks me out from everyone else as definitively as my fingerprints.
Suffering is part of life. How much I get to suffer is partly a lottery and partly up to me. My suffering is mine alone; I do it in my own way, and it cannot be compared to anyone else’s suffering. Tortured by the same demon, you and I will not necessarily feel the pain in the same manner, although neither of us will ever be sure of this.
What Is The Point of Speaking About My Suffering?
I believe you cannot understand what I go through. This is one reason why I don’t talk about suffering much unless a particular person can do something to ease my burden. What would be the point? I fear I will lose friends if I complain too much, and that people who don’t care about me will judge me, as if my misery were all my fault.
Most suffering is invisible, and I am loathe to think of it as comprising an identity, but it does. So, how do I explain to you my suffering?
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Some suffering we can all probably agree on. The cause is clear, and we can identify with the effect it has on a human being. This kind of suffering is mostly physical, and includes illness and deformity. Everybody has sources of at least minor irritation no one else notices or feels.
Each of us to lesser extent is a map and a history of flaws and peculiar sensations, of itches or aches, that come and go or linger. We all have our vulnerabilities, although, of course, some suffer more than others. Serious illness, especially terminal illness, can overwhelm all other aspects of an identity, conditioning how the sufferer is seen and how he sees the world.
Also understandable is suffering as the result of natural disaster, accident, violence, and financial ruin. (Leaving aside, that is, any action that I may have taken to get into the unfortunate situation.)
Inconspicuous Reasons of Suffering: Imperceptible Mental/Emotional Hardships
Beyond all this, most of us manage to also suffer for inconspicuous reasons—at least I do—and I have an entire recipe book of imperceptible mental/emotional hardships that have no apparent cause. These troubles of mine divide neatly into bad times that I have on my own and those that require the input of other people.
I have a range of mechanisms for self-torture, conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary, with which I can afflict myself whether other people are present or not. They are not dependent on company.
Everything is all mixed up, as I frequently am, but my solo sufferings could be broken down as follows:
Self-criticism. In my head, I am engaged in more or less continuous running monologue. Sometimes it takes the form of a dialogue between two parts of myself.
Whatever it is I am doing, I know how to do better but I can’t always put the technique into practice. I, therefore, keep up a more or less continuous tirade of instructions, imperatives, prohibitions, conditional warnings, chastisements, admonishments, reminders of duties and obligations, corrections, criticisms, questions (rhetorical, naturally, because there is only me there to answer them), exclamations, promises, and other good advice.
This monologue is wearying to deliver and wearing to listen to. It is a good thing no one else can hear me. Only occasionally do I allow myself to do what I am doing uninterrupted by my know-all alter ego.
Failure. This hurts. It is usually me who sets the standards I am trying to achieve, and it is always me who acts as judge.
Failure can be large or small, but small failures can accumulate into large ones. I also sometimes judge myself prematurely—think I have failed when I haven’t, and precipitate failure almost as if it were desirable. Failure has many subheadings: not earning enough money, not being recognized for my achievements, not getting the sexual satisfaction I want, and so on.
Inadequacy. If I accumulate enough failures, and if I estimate that there is more wrong with me than right, I can consider myself not good enough for the task in hand. This may mean something minor, such as playing tennis, or something enormous, like being a decent human being.
Self-doubt can lead to self-sabotage and, if I am not careful, I can get into a destructive spiral.
Anxiety, Hesitancy, and Procrastination. These usually involve decisions I have to take.
Often hindsight says there was only one course of action and I took it, but I still managed to suffer in the leadup to it.
Guilt and Shame. If only there were a way to know how much guilt and shame I should suffer so that I could feel I had paid my dues.
Regrets. This pertains to what’s past. I know I can’t change what is done, but I would still like to.
Dissatisfaction. This pertains to the present.
Disquiet. This pertains to the future. I am quite capable of anticipating suffering that never comes.
Fears, Real and Imagined. These are mostly to do with change and unpredictability, rather than fighting off wild bears. Things may be smooth now, but what if the worst happens?
I consider myself an optimist, but I admit that I have a streak of foreboding running through my character.
Vices, Obsessions, and Addictions. In my case, these are mostly (I hope) mild and relatively harmless and often result in pleasure. But too much of a good thing can lead to a fall—or a hangover.
Existential Panic. The grand questions of life force themselves on me periodically and then I dwell on my insignificance and the futility of it all—supposing everything I have done with my life is a mistake, and so on.
Loneliness. This is sometimes an overwhelming feeling that can cause me sadness and despair beyond any description. There have been times in my life when I have been willing to do almost anything to escape from being me by myself, isolated, unreachable, inconsolable, and beyond all help.
My dependency on other people introduces another list.
Suffering Is Interactive; The Effect Is Often Mutual
I am fairly certain that most people don’t mean any harm in their interactions with me, but I associate them with another range of sufferings. Because suffering is interactive, the effect is often mutual and then I suffer a little more for having caused reciprocal suffering.
I have different ways of having a hard time, depending on the people I am dealing with. Much surrounds the people I feel I am stuck with, whom I am supposed to love—that is, my family. I don’t like it when they don’t do what I want them to do, or do want I don’t want them to do. I can’t understand why they won’t change to be more like I want them to be. Love is a complicated thing: it can easily flip over into loathing and resentment on either side.
People I like, and who I want to like me, can also trigger suffering if they don’t respond in the way I hope. It can be very difficult when people don’t seem to like me just as I am, because then I have to decide whether or not to try and change myself to suit them. If I do that, I might not like myself for doing it, and they may still not like me for being the person I thought they wanted me to be.
A third and more obvious group are the bullies and other obnoxious people I can’t avoid and must endure. This includes anyone who ever triggers any disagreeable emotion in me, including jealousy because they are more successful than I am.
There’s a lot more to my suffering than this sketch, but at least it gives the basic blueprint. It shows just how I operate inside and explains, to some extent, the dramas that are staged outside me.
I must quickly add that this isn’t a complete picture of life. My suffering is only one aspect of me and is diluted by other experiences. It is important to add a note of balance, remind myself of the counterweights, lest I plunge into self-harm or even self-destruction.
Suffering Itself Does Not Have To Be “Bad”
Suffering itself does not have to be “bad.” It can be—but is not always, I know—a positive thing to learn from and with which to create. Some of life’s most intense experiences are during times of great suffering, such as grief, and bizarrely it is sometimes in the hardest moments (ones that I do not wish for) that I feel most alive.
©2013 by Nick Inman. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Findhorn Press. www.findhornpress.com.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
When Nick Inman’s bank asked him to identify himself he realized he had an interesting problem. Who was he really? How did he know who he was? And how on earth could he prove it beyond doubt that the person inside his head was the same as the person outside, as detailed on his documentation? Moving like a detective story, this book pieces together the formula or recipe for a complete human being, listing ingredients from the prosaic to the surprising.
About the Author
Nick Inman is a writer, a photographer, and a translator. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than 30 books, including Eyewitness Spain, The Optimist's Handbook, and the Road Less Traveled: Amazing Places Off the Tourist Trail.