A Formula for Suffering (Part 2)

In Part 1, we concluded that, while feelings (i.e. emotions and sensations) are a constant in life, suffering can be reduced by letting go of control. However, control also serves as a coping mechanism for handling stress, so reduced control means reduced coping, which can add to suffering. Here are the formulas we used to represent these lines of thought:

(10) Suffering = Feeling x Control
(12) Suffering = Stress / Coping

While the overall effect of reducing control may be positive, our formulas suggest that we can also reduce suffering by reducing stress and increasing coping. Reducing stress generally means taking some of the stressors off of our plates, while increasing coping means enlarging our plates through improvements in self-care and stress management. The goal, of course, is to have a plate that isn’t overflowing.

At this point, I would like to modify our control formula (10) to make room for another important variable, which is trust:

(13) Suffering = Feeling x Control / Trust

This new variable represents our degree of trust in self, others, and life. When we have trust, we are better able to let go of the feelings that contribute to suffering (e.g. doubts, fears, worries, and insecurities). Therefore, as trust goes up, suffering goes down, regardless of the level of control. However, as trust approaches zero, suffering approaches infinity.

Trust is an internal process related to how we see the world (i.e. our subjective perceptions), while control is more of a response or behavior. This means that we can address suffering through our behaviors (control) or through the personal perceptions on which they are based (trust). I believe the perception approach is more efficient in the long run, because increased trust will lead to fewer behavioral concerns. It’s a matter of treating superficial vs. underlying causes. A lack of trust causes suffering, and people often cope with suffering by increasing control, which then leads to further suffering. Both trust and control are related to suffering, but trust (i.e. perception) is the deeper issue.

If we add together the suffering derived from control and trust (13) with the suffering derived from stress and coping (12), we get a single formula for understanding suffering:

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

Just for fun, let’s call this our Unified Theory of Human Suffering. What it says is 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.**

I assume that humans can never completely let go of control, so control can never reach zero. I also assume that stress can never reach zero, because stressors are inherent in life. Meanwhile, I assume that trust and coping have no such limits. At least in theory, we can lose our trust completely, and we can suffer a complete breakdown in coping. Here are my assumptions in mathematical form:

(15) Control > 0
(16) Stress > 0
(17) Trust ≥ 0
(18) Coping ≥ 0

If these assumptions are true, then suffering can never equal zero, because control, stress, and feeling are always present (i.e. greater than zero). The only way suffering can get close to zero is for trust to be very high compared to control and for coping to be very high compared to stress. Of course, all four variable are important, but no matter how much we try to reduce control and stress, a lack of trust or coping will always make suffering skyrocket!

In A Formula for Suffering (Part 3), we will conclude this exploration by looking at the role of expectations and walking through some examples to see how our formula might work in practice.

**I realize that these variables are not entirely independent (control is related to coping, stress is related to trust, etc.). I also realize that there is no single unit of measurement that could possibly quantify all these variables. These formulas are simply useful as tools for exploration and reflection.