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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

The Absence of Suffering

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

When living in a Church of Christ-sponsored children’s home during the early ‘90s, I wasn’t allowed to hang up posters, found in stores like Spencer’s, which depicted scantily clad women. As a compromise, I was granted permission to display the above-indicated poster of Belinda Carlisle.

Despite the term not having been popularized at the time, I thought the singer was a smokeshow. Though the concept conflicted with my religious views, I enjoyed her song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” from the 1987 album Heaven on Earth.

The reason for this faith-based conflict was due to the notion of perfectionism being attainable by humans after a supposed fall from grace in relation to the Garden of Eden. As well, the Earth was considered imperfect, as it was said to have been occupied by Satan and his demons.

I’ve long since left behind religiosity. Nevertheless, I maintain conviction in the notion that perfection is unattainable in this life. Because I have no idea what—if anything—succeeds this existence, I don’t rely on unfalsifiable claims related to purity following death.

What appears to be self-evident is that as surely as humans live we will suffer. Many theologians, philosophers, theorists, intellectuals, and even one psychotherapist with a poorly written blog have addressed this topic throughout the ages.

Giving an example of one person’s perspective, I turn to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his 1891 piece “On the Sufferings of the World,” he opens his argument by stating:

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.

When encountering terms like should, must, or ought, I pay close attention to a speaker’s demandingness—rigid insistence upon action from oneself, others, and life. In Schopenhauer’s case, it appears as though he’s claiming that suffering isn’t merely a bug in the proverbial program, it’s a feature.

Regarding this framing, one source states, “A feature is a functionality intended to be useful to the user. A bug is a behavior, usually the result of an error or sloppy programming, that gets in the way of the features.”

Though suffering is inescapable in this existence, I often observe people deluding themselves with irrational beliefs about how they can create Heaven on Earth. On this topic, I recently shared my thoughts through a textual conversation with a close friend, “Jammies”:

A mental health advocate, Jammies partakes in many activities in order to achieve wellness. In my text, I reminded her that suffering is inherent in life and practices such as self-care help us endure suffering—not eliminate it.

Furthermore, and because Jammies and I have had many conversations about Stoicism and existentialism, I reminded my dear friend of her inevitable death. Perhaps Elysium or some other eternally blissful existence comes after this life, though perfection isn’t achieved while on this Earth.

Therefore, enduring the reality of suffering is our plight as humans. As Jammies remains familiar with the practice of REBT, I reminded her of the is-ought problem—how one cannot derive an ought when faced with what is.

Setting a good-enough standard of life is a method of using unconditional acceptance—thus accepting what merely is. This is an anecdote to self-disturbance—how we upset ourselves with rigid and unhelpful beliefs.

On occasion, I’ve discussed with Jammies the concept of low frustration tolerance and how self-care activates which use elements of chosen suffering may help increase resilience (e.g., cold plunges). While this fortitude-building practice doesn’t eliminate suffering, it may help people endure distress experienced in life.

Although I wish none of us would suffer, we ultimately do. As such, I don’t fool myself into believing it should, must, or ought to be any other way.

Consequently, the absence of suffering in this lifetime isn’t a fantasy I’m willing to entertain. How about you, dear reader, would you rather unconditionally accept what is, upset yourself by demanding what ought to be, or perhaps take another path altogether?

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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