My cat likes to chew ribbon, a snack that has the potential to kill him. That’s a bad life choice. The couple times he was able to get at some they were small enough pieces that they passed through him instead of clogging his intestines… that or he used up one of his nine lives. On the positive side of this terrible choice, seeing sparkly, rainbow coloured cat poop is kind of funny: (litter cleaner) “Honey, I think our cat is part unicorn.” Ultimately, if my wife and I aren’t careful with ribbons in the future we may have unnecessary suffering ahead of us… basically because my cat is stupid.
A friend and fellow therapist, Mark Laing, pointed out there is necessary and unnecessary suffering. It’s such a simple and brilliant concept because the conclusion is: Make good life choices and you’ll suffer less. Sometimes we need to suffer for the greater cause like going to school and going to work when we don’t want, not having that piece of cake that’s so tempting, working out when we’d rather veg out, or forcing ourselves to go out and see people because we’ve been too isolated lately. This is suffering that leads to a greater good like our overall health. But then there is unnecessary suffering, which is caused by bad decisions fueled by selfishness, laziness, and spite. When I looked at my own life, I realized that like most people, the vast majority of my suffering over the years was the result of my own bad decisions. I gave into the temptation of the immediate satisfaction over making the smarter, harder choice. This includes biting my tongue when I want to yell or give a jab comment to cut someone down; it’s being nice to avoid escalating a problem when someone else is rude; it’s letting a friend help me when I hate letting people do things for me; it’s confronting a problem I’d rather hide from because I hate conflict. It’s my sister going through the hell of chemo treatments to help prevent her cancer returning, which she describes as purposely making yourself sick now to avoid possible death in the future. On the plus side, necessary suffering is typically a lot lighter than the repercussions of unnecessary suffering, but it’s still tempting to avoid because who wants to have any suffering?
What’s strange is as an outsider it can make a lot of sense to face the necessary suffering in order to avoid the greater unnecessary suffering. Years ago I was on a mission trip with a girl who struggled with her weight and noticed every time we stopped, even if no one else got anything, she bought a large sugar filled drink. Eventually the topic of diabetes came up and when I asked if she has a fear of getting it her response was, “I assume I’m going to get it, so I’m going to enjoy myself until then.” The Dr. Phil in me wanted to say: “Diabetes isn’t a guarantee; you can do things to help prevent it, which will help prevent you from becoming a burden to others from your ailment. What you’re saying is just like if I said ‘My dad died of a heart attack, so I’m going to smoke and eat as much crap as I want; I’m going to die young anyway.’ That’d be a terrible way to think. This will cause me to die earlier than I need thereby screwing over my loved ones. What you’re suggesting is really just a selfish excuse for not having self discipline and wanting a quick high to distract yourself from your inner pain that’s the real issue.” I hope you read that with a Dr. Phil accent… although arguably that was a better argument than he would’ve used (Dr. Phil) “That… that… that… that’s stupid.” I’m not sure why I just made Dr Phil into Porky Pig, but you get the idea. Fortunately, my actual response to this girl was much softer, but unfortunately, it was so soft because of my fear of conflict that it was easily dismissed.
When you connect with people, you’ll see situations like this everywhere. Part of my frustration with others is I know I’m not that smart, so when people do things even I know are bad life choices I want to scream: Can’t you see where this will lead? I know one very nice young lady who’s a Christian who started seeing a guy whose family is so Muslim his sister wears a hijab. He apparently even told her they can’t be together in the long run. When she asked me why God would allow her to have this relationship I pointed out that He was in heaven like: “This guy who messaged you isn’t a good choice, so don’t message him back even if he’s cute… Okay, you messaged him, but don’t meet up… Okay, you met up, but don’t meet up every day for a week… Okay, well, you’ve developed feelings so get ready for heartbreak.” God must get so frustrated with people who make terrible choices, especially when we will later blame Him for the pain it causes.
As a therapist it’s not uncommon for me to hear someone admit they’re part of an affair with a married person. They’ll typically say, “I know it sounds bad, but this is different.” First rule: It’s not different. It’s always the same. Here’s how it works. An unhappy married person gets a high from an attraction, which gives them a reason to want to pursue this other person to get this high again. If a conversation starts, this person will vent and share their hurt to the new person making the new person feel special and connected. Being the support person helps them feel superior than the spouse being vented about, which adds to their high of feeling special and connecting to someone new and therefore interesting. The support person who feels special ends up appearing more understanding and caring than the spouse being complained about thereby adding to the initial attraction the upset spouse had. Both people ultimately feel validated and important, but as soon as the upset married person no longer has the spouse to complain about, the new relationship is screwed because the connection was based on their anger of someone who ultimately has more of a right to be angry because they’re being cheated on. Nothing good comes out of an affair; only hurt, resentment, and a whole lot of debt from the divorce and/or therapy. Yet, it’s continually happening. People are constantly setting themselves up for a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering for a temporary high.
In the back of my mind I now like to consider a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is the worst and 10 is the best for how good a life choice is in order to reduce the risk of unnecessary pain. For instance, I would love to do an addition on my house and I can financially do it if I remortgage my house. Doing this, however, would add unnecessary financial stress with increased payments and a penalty for breaking my current mortgage that renews in two years on top of the stress of dealing with contractors. And why do an addition when I have a baby and a wife who needs to figure out her own future? As much as I want to do it, the smart choice is to say no (at least for now); the dumb choice is to do it and say “God will provide.” That’s another time when God is like: “Don’t do it. You’re setting yourself up for unnecessary pain.” In the smaller sense, I avoid eating snacks as much as I can because I know once I start I struggle to stop. Not having any snacks makes life easier (minus special occasions where I have a treat. I also know if I don’t get enough sleep, I’ll struggle to stay awake in the day, which is not good when I’m sitting listening to people. I need to make my life easier and go to bed even if I’d rather stay up. I essentially have to be my own parent and tell myself to go to bed. Life is hard enough; I need to do what I can to limit how much I suffer. What’s great about this is the less I suffer, the less those around me suffer. By protecting myself, I show love to both myself and those I care about because I’m in a better spot for them. Plus, the less I suffer, the stronger I am for helping others. Good life choices lead to a domino effect of goodness.
This week may you consider what is necessary and unnecessary suffering from life choices, and may you have the strength to start reducing the suffering in your own life from good choices.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people