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We’re stuck in an age-old dichotomy.
Work hard now, reap the rewards later. Enjoy life now, suffer the consequences later. We’re told you can’t have both, especially not at the same time.
When you’re stuck doing something that makes you unhappy, the feeling worsens when you look around and notice other people enjoying themselves. To console yourself, you tell yourself that same line.
You’re suffering now so that you can have a better future down the road. Meanwhile, others who aren’t suffering are going to have to pay the price later. It all evens out in the end.
The question is: Does it?
Why is suffering seen as a prized state of being? Is there something to be gained from pain?
The Point of Suffering
In his best-selling memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl describes life in Nazi death camps and the lessons on what it takes to survive. Based on his observations, those who found meaning in their everyday lives were more likely to cope with obstacles and hardships.
Frankl argues that having a purpose is the key to getting through difficult circumstances. We are not primarily driven by the pursuit of pleasure, as others previously claimed, but by the pursuit of doing something we find meaningful.
He says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The principles behind the book remain relevant today. How do you choose to respond to your situation? Do you do things that have meaning, or do you coast by day to day without aim?
Fortunately, most of us today have some luxury in choosing how to spend our time and efforts. Whenever you encounter a potential opportunity, you should ask yourself whether it adds meaning to your life. That sense of meaning, however, shouldn’t be confused with what is pleasant.
Just because something is meaningful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy, enjoyable, or relaxing. Many things that have meaning can be difficult or painful. Exercising for improved health can be painful. Working to support loved ones sometimes can mean performing difficult tasks.
Of course, we all need time to rest, recuperate, and reflect on our actions. You might feel tired and want to take a nap, or feel like opening your perspective by reading a book. Look at what you’re doing right now and ask yourself whether you’re spending your time in the best possible way.
The point of suffering is not to suffer for the sheer sake of it, but as a necessary means to achieving what you want. That can mean performing the necessary actions to help you grow as a person, or doing something to help your loved ones. Suffering is the by-product to living meaningfully.
Determine Your Priorities
What does it mean to live meaningfully? For many, it’s the pursuit of something greater. That greater something can be nicer possessions, recognition, or freedom.
And when you do obtain those things, it feels great. You’re on top of the world. But eventually, that satisfaction is temporary before you feel the need to chase after the next big thing.
This feeling is understandable. It’s natural to aspire towards something and work towards it. It’s another to think that once you obtain something, your life will be complete. More importantly, think about what you are willing to give up in the process.
What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve something you want? Are you willing to give up your health, relationships, and time for what you’re looking for? To what extent are you willing to tip the scales towards getting more of one thing, and less of another?
There are always tradeoffs involved. Only you can decide what you want to give up to get something else.
Redefining the Later
The classic formula is to work for 40 years, and then enjoy the last 20 years. You put up with all that stress and hardship, so you deserve to relax afterward. Some people spend most of their lives counting down the years until that moment happens.
But is there really a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
The danger in this line of thinking is the assumption that certain things will stay the same. Your needs and wants will stay the same. You will stay the same.
Chances are, they won’t. As you get older, different issues crop up. Many people experience unexpected health issues, increasing family obligations, or financial responsibilities. With these new challenges, something you were able to do previously becomes much harder to do later.
Look at your own situation 10 or 20 years ago. You might have had more time back then or faced different challenges from the ones you faced today. Trying something new can sometimes get harder because you feel less energy and motivation. You also have more to lose.
Instead of assuming you’ll have those last 20 years to reap the fruits of your labor, it makes more sense to both work hard and enjoy life on a periodic basis. After all, who knows what will happen in 10, 20, or 30 years?
It’s safer to assume that things will stay the same in the near future rather than in the long term. Let yourself enjoy the simpler, smaller enjoyments of everyday life, such as going out for a walk, doing a hobby, or trying new food. For bigger experiences, such as travel or learning a new skill, plan them within months rather than waiting for someday decades down the road.
When Later Isn’t As Enjoyable You Thought
Most of us imagine ourselves relaxing in an idyllic, peaceful setting. A warm tropical beach with waving palm trees and rolling waves. A cottage by the lake with mountains and trees nearby. Somewhere calm and quiet, without others’ expectations and the frantic hustle of work.
We would love nothing more than to lounge around doing the leisurely activities we want to do. These thoughts crop up most often when we’re in the midst of working and feeling fatigued and stressed. Our minds can’t help but drift to that inevitable “later”, when we can drop it all and go somewhere else.
When that “later” arrives, it might not meet your expectations. In fact, it can be downright disappointing.
You might initially think that you went through all your struggles so that you could get to that point where you’re sitting on a porch. Doing nothing might sound like the dream when you’re working hard. But when you get there, you feel bored and restless.
I knew a couple that was retiring and wanted to buy a beachside property. They spent their entire lives working, and now it was time to relax and enjoy. They saw some places that matched the lifestyle they were looking for, but then there was another property that had a couple built-in guest rooms, a restaurant, and a bar.
They insisted that they wanted to have time to themselves now that they were retired. It didn’t make sense to retire just so they could go someplace else to work. They envisioned themselves reading, cooking, and lounging on the beach. A business didn’t fit into their plan.
So they thought long and hard about what they wanted. It turned out they actually did want to run a business. They decided to buy the final property and opened up the restaurant, bar, and guest rooms.
Sitting around made them restless and anxious to do something. They realized they were much happier running a business and interacting with customers. For them, retirement was a path to a new endeavor.
Finding Meaning in Both Suffering and Enjoyment
Challenges and joys are a part of every stage in life. What was a primary problem at one point gets replaced by another. The same goes for the things you find enjoyable.
It’s important to find meaning behind the events in your life, good or bad. There won’t be a time where you’re free of all worries, so don’t waste time waiting. These struggles keep us going and help us to appreciate the happier moments.
It’s also important to proactively go after experiences that provide meaning and enrich your life. If you can do that, then you can weather any storm that gets thrown at you.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl – Named in a survey as one of the ten most influential books in America, Frankl chronicles his experiences of life in Nazi death camps and the lessons it brings for spiritual survival. He discusses how suffering, although inevitable, can be coped with and that there is a way to find meaning and move forward.