I hate suffering. I even hate the word. I hate the idea of being in love with suffering.
Not just because I think it is stupid or a cliché – it is – but because as much as I hate to admit it, there are places in my life where it is true. “The truth will set you free”, said a friend, “but first it will piss you off”. Whenever, I hear the phrase “you love your suffering” it pisses me off but I cannot deny the reality: sometimes I do.
There are places in life that I have chosen to embrace my suffering and use it as de facto definition of who I am simply because I can think of nothing better. My suffering is like the hole in a donut: although the hole doesn’t actually exist sometimes it is all I see. The suffering exists in my life only because I choose to see it.
I’m not sure this will make sense. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Maybe you will understand. Maybe you won’t. I’m sure there is some clinical pathology behind this role I chose to play and people more learned than I have written volumes about the topic. Honestly, I’m not even going to try to explain it intellectually.
Don’t misunderstand – there is suffering in the world. The world is full of suffering in places like Haiti, Somalia and even on the streets of the United States. But in my white, lower middle-class suburb outside of Columbus, Ohio there was no real suffering. Suffering was a choice I made and an attitude I took. Often, I proudly wore suffering like merit badges on a Boy Scout sash.
In reality, the choice to suffer was not a reflection of some clinical pathology or societal circumstance; it was a reflection of my spiritual immaturity. To stop loving suffering requires honesty and willingness. Some areas of my life I understand where I behave that way and address it. Other areas are…well…still difficult. In some places it is a spiritual blind spot and I don’t even realize I’m doing it which goes to show how spiritually immature I can still be and how ingrained the mindset.
When I was a kid, I embraced the idea that nice guys finish last and then proceeded to pretend to be the nice guy. Of course, I was nice only to the extent that being nice would get me something I wanted: sex, money, power, recognition…your girlfriend. If I didn’t get “it”, I would use the failure as an example of how unfair the world is and justification for my suffering.
I hated the idea that I was a social misfit and then would do and say things that reinforced that perception. “Friends” betrayed me and I retreated to universe filled with imagined humiliation and convenient resentments. I would be bullied and loathe myself for my cowardice. I was a failure at academics and then choose not to work on my academics. I would be rebuffed by a girl and then share my suffering by hanging my head in mock humiliation. Living with alcoholism is all about learning a role and my role was to be the martyr or the victim.
After a while suffering becomes more than simply a survival tool – it becomes a mindset. It becomes a choice. Eventually suffering became my soul companion and as a result, my de facto love.
For example, I would choose to be emotionally, physically and/or spiritually vulnerable to unsafe people, in unsafe situations, at unsafe times and when the eventual – and predictable – disappointment or shame or betrayal came home to roost I would hang my head in my hands and suffer the humiliation. Then I would shine the pain up and spin the slights to show what a great guy I am and how I had suffered at the whims of the Furies and Fates.
In all these situations I convinced myself that I was suffering when really what I was doing was pouting and acting like a self important prick. To rephrase The Young and the Restless star Peter Bergman, “I was neither a victim nor a martyr but I played one in life”. Hell in some respects it was my life. I defined myself by my suffering.
The truth is my suffering hid my hubris. My suffering gave me an identity, and like the Greek Narcissus, I fell in love with my own reflection. I chose this suffering because it was easier than taking responsibility for my own life. I chose my suffering because it would echo back to me what I already thought of myself. My problem is not low self-esteem but rather over-esteem. I thought my mistakes and errors and gaffs were more important than they actually were and so worked to hide them making me a liar, a cheat and a thief.
I arrogantly believed the alcoholic in my home drank because I was a bad son. I arrogantly believed the reason I was bullied was because I deserved it. I arrogantly believed my advances were rejected because I was substandard. Today, I know my treatment had more to do with how the alcoholic or tormenters or Desires felt about themselves then in how they felt about me. However, my reactions made it easy to justify their behaviors and had more to do with me than with anything they did or said.
In my arrogance I convinced myself that I was spiritually, mentally and/or physically defective.
Of course this is a lie but believe a lie long enough and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Intellectually knowing the truth is not the same as being able to the live the truth.
Soon, like the donut, all I saw was a hole. In this case, the hole was the idea I was unlovable. By the time I was in my early twenties this idea was fully integrated into my identity. As such, I tried to fill that bottomless hole in the center of my soul with being whatever I needed to be to be loved using whatever was convenient: money, women, sex, jobs, cars, church, religion, philosophy, violence, alcohol and the Marine Corp. Of course they all failed at fixing my suffering – and in many cases the pursuit of these “fixes” made it worse.
However, I consoled myself with the idea I was somehow a “saint” and “someday” I would be rewarded for my suffering.
Yes you read that right – I wanted to be a Saint…or at least earn a little veneration. Although having a Catholic order named after me would have been great I would have accepted a church or school or library…but I digress.
Being in love with my suffering is more about love then suffering. Let me say it again: being in love with my suffering is more about love then suffering. I’ll give you a moment because I had to reread that sentence a few times before it made sense to me and I’m the one that wrote it…
For example, I bemoan my lack of intimate and close friendships. I am bitterly envious of those with lifelong friendships but my lack of friendships results from my inability to be a friend.
This is the way it works: I share enough of myself to become friends. Then we talk. We do some things together. We hang out and have a good time. Then I get uncomfortable with the closeness because if you really knew me you wouldn’t like me. Then I start to think about things. Things like loss…and disappointment…and abuse…and loneliness. And then, inexplicitly I stop answering the phone when you call or returning your phone calls.
Couple that to my sometimes overwhelming and unreasonable fear of people and crowds and is it any wonder I have even one lifelong friend. In truth, I have only one lifelong friendship. I have only one because she is the only one who is willing to put up with my lack of consistency and my spiritual immaturity. She is the saint not me.
I’ve known about my arrogance and overdeveloped and wacked sense of self-worth for over a decade now but some habits are harder to break than others. However, recently, as a result of relationship problems (many self-inflicted) I see to what extent I sabotage my own life. I had no idea till recently how deeply this character defect runs though my identity. I thought I had exercised it from my identity but have found myself recently engaging in old behaviors of isolating and withdrawing (although, if I’m still doing old behavior it isn’t old behavior).
The reality though, it is a pain in the ass.
A few weeks ago a woman I love said to me – you are in “love with your suffering”. Initially, I thought “bitch”. However, as I said, “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off”. As such, I decided to sit with it and spend some time contemplating the meaning of what she said.
The truth is she is right. I am in love with my suffering. As such, I’ve been talking to people I trust about it and trying to see the blind spots in my life where I let this mindset cripple my relationships with friends and families, dreams and personal visions. There appears to be a theme but I’m still working the details.
I asked a friend the other day what it means to be in “love with suffering” and if she thought I suffered from this malady of the ego. She laughed and responded, “Yes. But Sean, you’re Irish. Enjoy it.”
Honestly, I have no idea what it means but I did go and get some Samuel Beckett and James Joyce writings just to find out. After all misery loves company. Would you be interested in talking about it over coffee and a doughnut?