SUMMARY: Why does it seem so many of us prefer to suffer, rather than do what seems obvious to others will bring about an end to our particular suffering? Perhaps one reason is that we fear the unknown. Perhaps another reason is that it is generally difficult to understand what would be better than our current circumstances if we are unfamiliar with what would be better.
(About a 3 minute read)
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I think many of us — especially when we’re young — now and then come across someone we believe we can save. That is, someone who is recognizably messed up, but not so messed up that we deem them beyond “straightening out”.
Sadly, you cannot save, you cannot straighten out, someone. They have to do it themselves. The most you yourself can provide is encouragement and — if you’re lucky — wise guidance. But how many of us understand that about people before we ourselves have tried — often more than once or twice — to save someone?
I know that was a hard lesson for me to learn. One of the hardest parts of it was to grasp that so many of us prefer the misery we know to the happiness we don’t know.
There’s a young woman I know who is a nearly perfect example of that. She frequently and bitterly complains about her situation and all the bad things thrown her way. For instance, she’s of an age when both an unfulfilled desire for companionship and an unfulfilled desire to get laid can combine to render you miserable even if everything else in your life is going great — which in her case, it’s not.
But she absolutely refuses to take even the very minimal step to fulfill her desires of simply finding ways to meet new people. Instead, she’s an encyclopedia of excuses why taking that step would be futile on her part. In short, she prefers the misery she knows to the happiness she doesn’t know.
People can be even more set in their ways when something as powerful as the desire for companionship or sex is not driving them — and especially if it is difficult for them to image what it would be like for things to really be different.
You often enough see it in more than one way with people who were abused as children. Some of them grow up to become abusers themselves. Presumably, how they were taught as children to relate to people becomes how they think it is natural — or even inevitable — to relate to people.
Some others grow up to become abused. Observers often remark that they seem to be attracted to people who will abuse them, but I don’t think that’s precisely true. It seems to be more likely the case that they are attracted to the familiar, and the familiar just happens to be people who fit the profile of abusers.
I have known people who could not recognize simple kindness for what it is. They saw it as a strings-attached ploy to set them up for manipulation or emotional blackmail. “I did you a favor, now you owe me.” When you tell them that isn’t real kindness, they have a hard time grasping what you mean by “real kindness”. It seems even when they can theoretically understand what you’re talking about, they can’t visualize it.
But more to the point, they cannot understand the importance of kindness. They don’t see how crucial it is to a healthy relationship. They seem to think it’s no more than sharing candy now and then.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s remark that people prefer their familiar suffering “out of fear of the unknown” strikes me as true. But I would add to it that another motive for preferring the known is that we might be unable to understand just how different things could be for us if we would change ourselves and/or our situation.
This post was inspired by a post on Robin’s excellent blog that can be found here.