Reducing suffering – How trying to avoid or control suffering often increases suffering – When to act and when to accept without action


Quick summary: The purpose of this piece is to encourage people to look at their actions related to the suffering of life. I have witnessed countless occurrences in which peoples actions, which were intended to reduce suffering, ended up causing even greater suffering… at times there is a good probability that suffering would never have occurred if the actions intended to avoid a suffering had never been initiated. So then I encourage people to ask themselves the following questions, “are my actions (thoughts, behaviors, rules, beliefs etc) helping my suffering more than they are perpetuating my suffering? Do my actions result in more or less suffering in this shared world?” The answer to these questions will not always be clear, and contemplating them might help you towards a greater acceptance of what is. What if you stopped asking “what if” questions and you stopped allowing your “what if” thoughts to result in “what if” actions. 

Is reading my opening paragraph I am sure that a number of you readers are supposing that I am reiterating Gandhi’s “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” philosophy… though I think his ideas to be helpful I intend to speak on something a bit different…

For this piece I will define suffering as emotional and metal distress.

I will speak most on the suffering which we cause for ourselves when we distract, avoid, overwork, and over think with the good intentioned yet futile goal of attempting to control chaos, to create predictability, or to force reality into looking like our expectations.

There are times when your actions will absolutely assist you in reducing the occurrence of suffering and there are times when you can do very little but accept the situation.



Perhaps the best example of this is in raising a teenager… teenagers are constantly making poor decisions that could have lasting impacts on their lives… there is unfortunately a point at which you can’t “do” much of anything… then what?

  • You could increase rules and move towards a more authoritative role… you could take away positives from the teens life… you could forbid them from certain friendships… you can attempt to control which environments they have access to… you could endlessly plan and strategize… you could diligently lead them to understand the depth of your disappointment… this may or may not work.
  • What was the cost of all your efforts? What was the cost to your mental, physical and emotional health?
  • What If you simply continue to offer love, support and appropriate structure… what would be different?
  • Many perfectly good parents have teens who are less structured and obedient than others… can you accept that you are doing good enough… that perhaps this is simply a difficult situation and difficult situations exist despite our best efforts to curtail them.


What about the danger of the natural environment… the threat of death. Many people experience suffering do to all the efforts that they put in place to avoid the risk of death that is inherent in going into nature (truly risk is simply inherent in living).

  • I am not suggesting that you don’t plan appropriately for safety… I am suggesting that there is a point at which the planning becomes the suffering.


I heard someone quote Thoreau the other day as saying something like, “I have suffered greatly in my life and most of my suffering never came to be.” – meaning that most suffering is found in those actions aimed at avoiding suffering.

This is the gift of non-action that is often talked about…

When the moment will not allow your influence, then your ability to impact suffering is based on your ability to accept the suffering in that moment.

When can you influence suffering in a helpful way and when do your actions have little or no impact on the suffering?

How do you know when you have crossed over the line into futility or even exasperation as related to suffering?

Existentialists have listed three “truths” that are at the source of human anxiety.

  • Death is inevitable… we all will die.
  • Meaninglessness exists (some say everything is meaningless)
  • Everyone is ultimately alone in this world


Your ability to come to a place of acceptance surrounding these variables can greatly reduce your anxiety.


It is in attempts to take actions against these truths which are very often the source of human suffering.


When do you act? When the moment is receptive to your influence.

When do you simply accept? When the moment is inevitable.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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