The Meaning Behind Setback and Suffering

October 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve had a topsy turvy week. One filled with moments of ecstasy, but ultimately it was topped off by what I had long expected to be coming. On Halloween night.

Oftentimes when dealt with unfavourable circumstances, my self-criticism mechanism kicks in and begins asking the questions “Why did things turn out this way?” or “Why wasn’t this experience what I expected it to be?”

I have been resisting all temptations to blame, to kick, shout and scream. If I am honest, I saw it coming, even if good advice came somewhat too late. My thoughts then focus on disappointments (on self and others), the foolish mistakes one had made, up to the point of setback, failure or suffering. Which of course could have been real or imaginary!

I found all my plans in disarray, like a spanner thrown into the works.

Since my plans have become derailed, the easiest danger and mental next-step would be to ask “What now? How am I going to deal with the future?”

It then dawned upon me that I was filling my mind with trivialities. For if I truly looked back at what I had achieved and worked on, I should be proud of doing things I never thought I had the courage to do. Yes, I have failed in many ways, yes, in hindsight I could have done in better, smarter ways. But now the bare fact of the matter remains:

I did it. I toed the line. Nobody can take the experience and lessons from me.

I might have had a few regrets, but I won’t have the regret of not giving myself the chance of doing what I eagerly wished to, even if it was a daunting challenge. In time, these sufferings will seem even more trivial, the stuff worthy of a bar-room or dinnertime joke. But for now, these experiences and pains are far too important to be wished away or ignored. I will stick with the pain, I will stay with it. For  there will be no “ignoring (the pain) or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism”. The advice  and warning I got, that came too late (my fault) is beckoning me to put them into practice, to crystallize them.

“There is only one thing I dread- not to be equal to by sufferings.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

What might have led to my failure, setback and a little suffering? There have probably been times when I tried too hard, spoke too much, flaunted excessively, about things I believed in, knew, and wanted to do. Youth, hubris and innocence make up part of the explanation and cause for this. For those of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. But the realization kicks in that I can only grow stronger and add to my wealth of experiences for this. What might have taken others ten years to learn, with these combined knowledge and experiences might take me much less.

If pain exists now, it comes from not being able to look into the future, of not seeing a goal or exit in the time ahead. Not that one doesn’t exist, but I am probably trying too hard to look into its finer details, much of it trivial concerns which fill my headspace.

The solace I will give myself is the old Stoic adage: I can no more control the tempests of circumstances lashing upon me, but I have every freedom and ability to choose my attitude to deal with the fates.

Again: The details don’t matter too much. The questions to ask myself are:

What do I want to make of all of this?


What am I looking forward to?

The latter is important, for it becomes a balm to suffering. Viktor Frankl, in his Man’s Search for Meaning mentions Spinoza’s Ethics:

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

Understanding that I can no more share this experience in life with any other person. All I can do is communicate it to them in my words. Much is still expected of me in life, of contributions I am to dedicate myself to. And therefore it is time to find it.

When I was but just a boy of 8, I would lose my belongings often. And each possession lost I learned the twang of pain. But I couldn’t help think to myself that losing things (and eventually people) seemed inevitable, whatever precautions we may take. Does that mean that I was fated for many bouts of pain as long as I lived?

I found solace in the balm of philosophy.

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”


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