Maybe you watch programs like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, read certain glossy magazines or even catch the occasional beer commercial. If such sources were all you knew about the world, you would conclude that life is perfect and effortless, a never-ending party without a cloud in the sky.
On the other hand, certain writers in Buddhism and other traditions will tell you our lives are nothing but suffering and we have to wait for our next incarnation or death and the world to come before the suffering can end.
Experience has taught us there is good in our lives, but living is not one endless beach party. Major challenges like loss and ill health hopefully are rare. The clouds that block our sun are usually the ongoing daily efforts and hassles. Many of these are related to our work whether in first or second acts. That is why we get paid. I have not found anyone yet who will pay me for sipping wine, reading a novel or just relaxing and enjoying myself. If you have found someone like that, please let me know.
Most of us do have to work, but it is up to us whether we suffer in doing what has to be done to keep our jobs or run our businesses. A Harvard Business Review article makes the distinction between suffering and sacrifice using examples of competitive, endurance athletes. We all know what suffering is. It can involve pain, effort, perhaps fear. For most people, work related suffering centres around doing what you don’t feel like doing when you don’t feel like doing it.
Sacrifice also involves feelings like pain and effort, but it does not involve suffering per se, because sacrifices are made in order to lead to a positive result. I am an economist and instead of using the terms suffering and sacrifice, I like to use the terms costs and investments.
Both costs and investments involve spending money or, in the case of the work environment, putting in time and effort and delaying gratification. Investments, however, are made with a positive long term goal or outcome in mind.
A serious athlete trains hard up to and sometimes past the point of injury. If you asked her, she would say she is working very hard, but she would not likely say she is suffering. Instead she is investing in her future athletic success, sacrificing ease and comfort now for the chance of greater good later – perhaps in the form of a gold medal.
It is up to us to decide whether we suffer at work, paying heavy costs or whether we see the time and effort we put in as investments. At the very least, they lead to wages or profits. Otherwise we would not be doing the work. Much of our effort involves other goals, for example, providing needed goods and services like food or shelter, haircuts or health care. Maybe our efforts have even loftier aims such as a cleaner environment or better government for our country and the world.
In our careers and the rest of our lives, we can choose to stay focused on why it is we put ourselves out rather than just goofing off. We might have to sacrifice some leisure, but we are investing in a greater good that makes the world a better place. With such a focus, we will feel more positive about doing what has to be done when it has to be done. When people tell us that suffering is optional, we will believe them.