Suffering remains optional, no matter how big the dent

I had a little run-in with a motorcyclist. I slowed down to stop at a yellow light and didn’t realize he was accelerating behind me, hoping I would speed through the signal. The motorcyclist swerved to avoid me, and I heard a small bump. I was relieved to see him upright and idling, just to my left. I rolled down the window and asked if he was OK.

"I’m fine," he said, "that was my leg that brushed your car."

"Are you sure you’re OK?" I checked, and he nodded yes.

"How’s my car?" I asked.

"Your car is fine," he replied.

Then the light changed, the cyclist turned left, and I drove straight. After a few blocks, I decided to pull over and look at my car.

In the rear left bumper was a deep indentation. The motorcyclist had kicked my car, and dented it badly.

I was furious. I was frustrated. I was embarrassed. I felt like an idiot for letting the guy get away. I felt like a sucker for being concerned about his safety, while he secretly laughed at the damage he did to my car. I thought about the cost of fixing the dent, the hassle of taking it to the body shop, and about the increase in my insurance premium. I felt humiliated.

Worst of all, every time I see the dent, the anger starts to fill me. I not only relive the incident, I start spinning a whole tale about the evil motorcyclist laughing at me — the poor sap — who was foolish enough to let a guy who kicked his car get away. I tell myself I was wronged, and that I need to do something about it. That dent makes me suffer.

A wise person once told me pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. It’s taken a long time for me to understand what she meant, but I’m beginning to get it.

I think about the hours I’ve wasted in the workplace with unnecessary suffering, usually caused by someone I didn’t like, or whom I felt sure was out to get me.

One of my close friends works with a colleague that makes her miserable. According to my friend, the colleague is disingenuous, untrustworthy, and highly political. The mere mention of this colleague’s name sends my friend into a rant. I can actually feel her misery when she talks about the guy.

I can also see my friend is suffering unnecessarily. I try to tell her that her nemesis is not going away, so she needs to figure out ways to cope. Fuming and ranting are not particularly useful, and it’s clear my friend must regain some perspective.
I used to react like that. I used to work myself into a frenzy over toxic colleagues, and I’d imagine that management would one day step in and fire these people.

But that almost never happened. After I became a part of management, I began to understand firing someone is a complicated, challenging, and delicate process. I also began to see that a lot of the frustration and anger I was feeling was unnecessary. I was creating and sustaining my own suffering.

So I’m trying to help my friend. I’m trying to help her notice how strongly she’s reacting. I’m trying to suggest ways to keep her from spiraling down.

I tell her to step back, take a breath, and try not to take things personally. I tell her she has to try and focus on the things she’s grateful for.

Easy for me to say. I still haven’t been able fix the dent in my car.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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