A Formula for Suffering (Part 3)

This three-part series uses mathematics, specifically algebra, as a metaphor for exploring and illustrating the relationships between the aspects of human experience that relate to suffering. In Part 2, we consolidated our previous equations into a single formula, which I dubbed the Unified Theory of Human Suffering:

(14) Suffering = (Feeling x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

This formula says that, if we hold feelings as a constant, suffering goes up with increases in control and stress, but it goes down with increases in trust and coping. Because feeling, control, and stress are always present in our lives (i.e. greater than zero), suffering can only approach zero when trust is very high compared to control and coping is very high compared to stress. We concluded that all four variable are important for managing suffering, but no matter how much we try to reduce control and stress, a lack of trust or coping will always make suffering skyrocket.

In my work, I also sometimes talk about suffering being caused by expectations. On the surface, this idea doesn’t seem to fit our formula, but if we think about expectations as beliefs or feelings about how things will be or should be, then perhaps we can simply substitute expectation for feeling:

(19) Suffering = (Expectation x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

This substitution suggests that expectations, like feelings, are not the real problem. In fact, expectations are probably a constant in life, just like feelings. We all have them. Expectations only contribute to significant suffering when they are combined with high control (i.e. clinging) and low trust. In the end, our Unified Theory of Human Suffering still holds true. Here it is one more time:

(14) Suffering = (Feeling x Control / Trust) + (Stress / Coping)

Now that we have a mathematical model for suffering, let’s consider a few examples…

If I kicked you in the shin, you would experience pain (i.e. a negative physical Feeling), which is only natural. However, your suffering could be greatly amplified by your resistance to the feeling (i.e. Control), by you clinging to the expectation that I shouldn’t have done it (i.e. Feeling x Control), or by your worry that I may have broken your tibia (i.e. Stress). Similarly, your suffering could be alleviated by accepting the pain, letting go of expectations, believing that my intentions were not malicious (i.e. Trust), and managing your worry effectively (i.e. Coping).

Let’s consider another example in which you are working with a team on a group project. If you don’t trust your group, you might cope by trying to control the direction of the project or the contributions of the other members. Through all this extra effort, you suffer. Over time, the other members may begin to resent your control or take advantage of you by doing less. Through their negativity or passivity, you suffer. If you resist the urge to control, you may still suffer due to lack of trust or insufficient coping mechanisms. Even if you do trust your group, they may fail to meet your expectations. To the extent that you cling to those expectations, and to the extent that you fail to trust that things will still work out, you suffer. And even if you adjust your expectations and renew your trust, there is always the potential for further disappointments and suffering.

With all these different paths to suffering, what can you do? You can’t avoid having feelings and expectations. That’s not possible. If the group project is not optional, then you also can’t avoid the stress. What you can do is utilize good coping skills, resist the urge to control, adjust to the ever-changing reality before you, and trust that things will work out somehow… even if you can’t see it.

One of my favorite quotes captures this idea beautifully, and I will end this long discourse with these timeless words:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? Be strong and of a good courage. Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.
-Fitz James Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1874