Choosing Not to Suffer

Choosing Not to Suffer

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare

Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.


Humans choose to suffer. I do not mean the acute suffering of a broken bone. You are human; you feel pain just as any other human. No, I mean the chronic suffering of longing for what isn’t while ignoring what is. Each time we pity ourselves for the direction our life has taken, we make a conscience decision to be miserable. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we think something is bad, and we are right.

One tenet of Stoicism is that events are neither good nor bad until we attach a label to them. We control whether the event is good or bad simply by consciously choosing which filter to apply. For instance, imagine being told tomorrow that the lingering cough you’ve had for months is caused by lung cancer that has metastasized to the throat. You are told that your expected lifespan can be counted in weeks and not years. To make it worse, you never smoked a single cigarette in your life. How can this be anything but the worst event of your, now limited, life? Though it will take courage, make the choice not to suffer.

Stoicism teaches us how to face death with our ruling reason intact. How lucky you are to know you have only days left after being given that short prognosis. You can surround yourself with the people you hold most dear. You can make sure that your personal and business affairs are in order. You can slow down and take time to marvel at the wonders of the cosmos. Most humans distract themselves from their own mortality, and death comes for them silently and without warning. But you are a Stoic. You have prepared yourself for the moment by reminding yourself that you, too, will die. Now you know the likely manner and time of your death, and you can experience so much more in your remaining days than the distracted ones who are taken unawares and have been taking life for granted. 

Choosing the path of suffering over the path of reason robs you of time, robs you of life, and robs you of the chance to find inner peace. As a whole, our profession often chooses the path of suffering. We are trained to foresee the worst possible outcomes and stop them from happening. This is not a recipe for finding the good in every situation. But we must! We must never let our professional obligations steal our ability to see the good. If we do not choose to see the good, our lives will be Hobbesian—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. We owe it to ourselves to bear our burdens with magnanimity. In the end, we want to look back over our life and know that we mostly lived a virtuous life. That is winning; that is the ultimate good.