I love aphorisms – short, memorable quotes that point to powerful truths. For instance, I love the saying, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” A related one that points to a similar truth is from French novelist Honore De Balzac (1799-1850), “Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.”
To me, both of these sayings point to the truth that much of our suffering is unnecessary – we bring it upon ourselves through our thinking. We imagine negative outcomes which, in and of itself, brings about suffering.
Granted, “bad” things happen. There are many types of losses (e.g., job loss, divorce, death of a loved one) that, quite naturally, pull for our negative emotions. It is normal to experience negative emotions under such circumstances. There’s no way to make it through this life without some of these things happening to us.
Our imagination is boundless though, and we create many fictional stories in our heads about bad things that could happen but never do. In essence, we suffer needlessly for many things that never even happen. When we think “what if ______ happens” in our heads, we react to these as “what is” facts. Merely dwelling on “what if” scenarios causes a cascade of neurochemical reactions, such as the release of adrenaline and cortisol – the “stress hormone.” These chemicals prepare us for fight or flight but, guess what? There’s often no action that we can take because it is all just a fiction happening in our minds…a story we are telling ourselves.
If you look at your own life, you can probably see much evidence to support the truth of the aphorisms mentioned at the beginning of this blog. How many times have you anticipated a negative event only to find that your worst fear didn’t happen and things turned out just fine?
Take our current job market, which is stressful for millions of people. Yes, you should watch your spending, stay on top of your budget, have your finger on the pulse of your particular job situation, and work competently at your job. Still, imagining economic disaster only causes unnecessary stress and suffering…especially about some variables over which you have no control.
For example, I have a friend who lost his job right before Christmas of this year. He decided he wasn’t going to stress over it. Although he could have been in financial trouble if he didn’t find a job after a period of months, that hadn’t happened yet – so why suffer for something that hasn’t happened?
Instead, he waited until after the new year started, he used his network, and sent his resume out to scores of people. Within in a week, he had a new job that paid more, was a much easier commute, he liked his responsibilities much more, and loved his new boss. Thus, had he ruminated on potential negative outcomes from his job loss, his suffering would have been completely unnecessary. It didn’t turn out bad for him it all. Far from it – his job loss was a blessing in disguise.
If you find yourself feeling a strong negative emotion, ask yourself whether these feelings are really necessary. If you are predicting a negative outcome, see if there’s something you can do about it. If not, try not to think about…because the thinking doesn’t make that negative event not happen…it makes you suffer for an event that has not even happened!
If the negative event happens, cross that bridge when you come to it. Chances are, IF the “bad” thing happens, the suffering that comes from it won’t be as bad as the suffering that comes from anticipating the bad event. This is one of the great ironies in life – we suffer much more in this life from predicting bad things that never happen than we suffer from negative events that actually do happen to us.
Don’t just accept what I say as true – reflect upon your own experiences and you will see why people have created aphorisms like, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” and “Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.”