I finished my taxes with two days to spare.  I promised myself I would get them done early this year.  Oh well, they were done earlier than last year’s.

I retired in August, and because my pension is less than my salary had been, I expected to have less income and a larger than usual return.  Instead, I owed more than ever before.  It made sense once I looked at the numbers, but I wasn’t expecting it.  With every entry into the computer, the little red number after “You owe:” got bigger and bigger.  Panic set in.  I had to take breaks, I paced around the house, wrung my hands, mumbled to myself, and wracked my brain for deductions I hadn’t considered.

Those who know me well can attest, I worry and complain a lot, mostly about things that are completely out of my control.  I can work myself into a mild to moderate tizzy over just about anything if I give myself some time.  This time, however, in the midst of my worry about taxes, I reminded myself, “These are problems that come with abundance.”  These aren’t the worries of someone with significant financial concerns or worries about their basic survival.  These are problems most people in the world would trade up for.

Sheldon Kopp wrote, “Life can be counted on to provide all the pain that any of us might possibly need.”  How true.  He went on, “At times, each of us adds a measure of needless suffering to that already weighty inevitable burden.  We insist that life’s random mishaps and calamities should not be happening to us. By dramatizing our plight with an anguished sense of personal injustice we exaggerate the pain of chance mishaps.”  There it is for me.  Oh woe is me!  What might happen now?  What might I have done differently?  Why is this happening to me?

Kopp differentiates between “legitimate suffering” and “needless suffering.”  I have my own share of legitimate suffering.  We each do.  Those are the pain, calamities, and tragedies that inevitably come from living our lives and loving others.  But legitimate suffering is a powerful thing.  It is what prompts true community.  We know intuitively that legitimate suffering is best endured when shared among fellow sufferers who know we are all in this together.  Legitimate suffering also has a way of focusing my attention.  In legitimate suffering, I can eventually identify my sadness or my outrage, and this can lead me either to take action or to be patient and trusting of the situation.

However, it’s the needless suffering that wears me down.  It has none of the benefits of legitimate suffering.  Needless suffering never stays focused.  It escalates into self-pity or catastrophizing the situation, because it is based in fear.  It spreads like a virus through every part of my life and eventually into every conversation in the form of whining and complaining.  This can bring me some temporary relief, but rarely any clarity.  I may find sympathetic company, but not community.  In fact, my complaints often just invite others to engage in competitive complaining to see whose problems are worse.

This has nothing to do with the size or intensity of the suffering.  It’s about what we do with the suffering.  I talked with a dear friend who was dying of cancer.  I asked her let me in on her thoughts.  She said she was trying to not to take her cancer personally.  “This can happen to anyone.  There’s no reason I should be exempt.”  She was moving to the end of her life with courage and clarity.  There was no “Woe is me” or “Why me.”  That’s legitimate suffering.

My taxes, well, they’re just taxes.  I whined and complained for awhile, and then I paid the bill, grateful that I had a good enough year to owe some.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, May 3, 2008