This Could Be the Difference Between a Life of Suffering or Joy


Photo Credit: Le Minh Tuan via Compfight cc

Three years ago, I bought an iPad mini.

I intended to use it, primarily, as an eReader. The idea of carrying all my books around in one place was a dream come true. The future was here—it didn’t have flying cars, but it did have portable libraries. And that was enough for me.

I’d be able to read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I could highlight passages, bookmark and unbookmark pages, make notes and edit them, all without doing any damage to these lovely creations called books. I’d be able to increase the font, which would be better for my eyes. And I could read in the dark. Electronic books were cheaper and I could have them on demand. The joyful possibilities were endless.

Instead, I suffered.

Everyone has a different definition of suffering. I have about fifteen myself. But here’s one that is starting to make more sense to me:

Suffering is resistance to what is.

Suffering is opposition to the present moment and demand for the next moment. Suffering is having this but wanting that. Suffering is the search for the next thing. Suffering is the mental roaming we do for what might be.

Suffering, for instance, is trying to read something brilliant, while wondering about something better.

Suffering is opening your iPad, settling into a good book—for about a minute—before remembering the text message you didn’t reply to. It’s highlighting a perfect passage, emailing it to a friend, and then remembering the other emails you forgot to send. Suffering is spending your reading time in the iBooks store, looking for the next new release.

Suffering is a mind that thinks about what it could be doing, rather than what it is doing.

In other words, suffering is what my iPad trained me to do, for three years.

Until this Christmas, when my wife gave me a paperback called Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite novels of all time. At first, I actually considered repurchasing it as an eBook. However, in a moment of blessed clarity, I decided repurchasing a Christmas present would cross a line into crazy I just wasn’t willing to traverse. So, instead, for the first time in years, I sat down to read a paperback.

And I couldn’t do it.

The prose was powerful. Poetry in paragraph form. And moments like this: “Kindness was something he didn’t even know he wanted, and here it was. It made him teary and restless…” Phrases to rest upon and sink into. Words that can teach you something about yourself, if you can only sit still long enough to let them.

But my iBrain.



Do it.

I wanted to flick faster through the pages. I wondered what notifications I was missing. I thought of things I needed to add to my to-do list. I remembered the purchases I wanted to make on Amazon.

But more than anything, my mind just wanted something else.

It wanted to move faster. Do more. Have more. Not because what was in front of me wasn’t pleasant, but because it had gotten used to wanting something other than what was present. And that is an exquisite kind of suffering.

I realized I was facing a decision: do I keep reading books on my iPad, or do I start reading them in paperback again. But, even more importantly, the decision I faced was this:

Do I want to live an iPad-life or a paperback-life?

An iPad-life is one of endless wandering. It is always pointing at something else. It puts its hand in your back and nudges you in the direction of more searching and thinking and doing. It makes looking for the next thing seem like the best thing.

But a paperback-life?

Well, like a good book, it invites you to stay. It invites you to settle down and to settle in. When you read a paperback, there is nothing else to do inside of it. Nowhere to go. No one else to talk to; only the pages talking to you. It’s like quicksand made of peace, pulling you into it.

Yeah, I want to live a paperback-life.

I want to settle into all of it. The achingly beautiful parts and the parts that, well, just ache. Because aching is pain, but suffering is the unwillingness or inability to be present to the pain. Suffering is wanting to fix it instead of feel it. Suffering is wanting to solve it instead of experiencing it.

How about you? Do you want to live a paperback-life?

Do you want to sink into every word and paragraph and page? Do you want to savor all of it—the happiness and the pain? Do you want to cease your resistance to what is, even if it hurts, and instead find your way to the bottom if it? Because something beautiful waits for you in the pages of a paperback-lifeyou’ll find really good words like presence and patience and resilience and acceptance and wakefulness and peace.

You’ll find gracelike a kindness you didn’t even know you wanted, making you teary, with joy.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Artisan Blog: Speaking of teary, my friend and colleague David Clinton made me cry with his post at the Artisan blog this week. You can check it out by clicking here

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

49 thoughts on “This Could Be the Difference Between a Life of Suffering or Joy

  1. Full disclosure: I’m writing this from my iPad. 😉

    Well, right now I want both. Sometimes it is awesome to sit and just read a book, but I also enjoy being plugged in. I do appreciate a good gadget. I love a physical book, but hate the overflowing bookshelves. Public libraries help somewhat with that, but not enough. Some things I want to be able to have for myself – to not check out of a library.

    Right now I’m planning a bike trip for the summer that will be mostly unplugged. Each time I’ve done that it has been great. But, again there are conflicting desires. I enjoy the time spent riding with friends, but don’t like the fact I have to do the organizing. Over time I’ve found a balance between technologies/things I’m comfortable with (like bikes or books) and technologies/things I’m not so comfortable with (Facebook, responsibility). Perhaps “found”isn’t the right word, I just know that sometimes I feel OK with myself, and sometimes I don’t. Both have as much significance as I care to give them.

    I guess in a bigger picture sense, it is helpful to know why I’m discontent. But I don’t know if that can be resolved completely. I do experience big chunks of my life where I’m content, but sometimes I’m not. If there is a “trick” to all of this, it’s to get OK with THAT.

    • Full disclosure: I read your comment from my iPad, Mike. 🙂 So true, that by adding frustration or intolerance with our discontentment that we are moving further from contentment, not closer. And thanks for this important addition: all of us as individuals need to figure out what pulls us specifically out of the present and into looking for the next thing, and then regulate it accordingly. Whether it’s an iPad, or anything else.

  2. I am also writing from my iPad.

    I just think you have hit on the beauty a reading a book, being fully immersed in it. I seem to manage that well on my iPad when I am enjoying and engaged in why I am reading, but something I am not enjoying my attention flits like a butterfly to a million other things. Something I have to read, I need to get offline. I caught on quickly to the lure of a notification, and I have not allowed any apps to send me push notifications. I have to open Facebook, email, or any of my other apps to see what is going on. This little separation for me lets me keep my focus and the joy that come from being immersed in a good read.

    • Good point! The post really is meant to highlight the experience of getting lost in a book (or anything else), regardless of the form, electronic or otherwise. If one is able to do that on an iPad, then the iPad is not an issue. For me, I most definitely cannot do that. 🙂

  3. My word for the year is “present,” so much of what you’ve written resonates with me. Experiencing all of life, undistracted, has been my goal, though I’ve fallen short of that thus far. There is a certain high to having 1,000 books at your fingertips, but what good are they if you don’t read them? (That’s a question for myself!) I gave up fiction for Lent, which means I have read fewer books because non-fiction takes longer for me to digest and process. It’s been difficult and good.

    A paperback life–I like that. Thanks for the challenge!

    • It’s a great word, Lisa, and exceedingly challenging to live! I’m happy to affirm the challenge of it. : )

  4. Another great article and you are spot on! I see this in my children who are aged between 11-16. Our twin girls who have only recently got iPads have already become less creative than they used to be😥 However Amy the youngest loves her paper back books and really does get fully immersed in them. Our 2nd child Mattis who’s 13 & loves the Xbox, when we manage to get him to bed early and he finds a book he loves ( usually Michael morpurgo) he too gets fully immersed which is wonderful for us parents!
    I was brought up on books & still love prefer them😊

    • Cat, you highlight a perspective I had not thought of, which is: it is important to cultivate that present experience in kids so they can actually feel the loss of it when it’s not happening. If they’ve never had a chance to experience it, they won’t know it’s missing and thus won’t have a desire to return to it.

  5. One of my favorite books talks about how little we creatures of time spend in the present moment…we spend hours in the past, reliving those things both good and bad that happened, and we also spend hours in the future where nothing is…yet. But, sadly, each of these robs us of the beautiful present that we are given full of grace and mercy to enjoy and share with those who appear before for us…for a moment…now. I’m trying desperately to be here…in this moment…fully engaged, every day…whatever comes before me.

  6. To be able to do a single task without distractions is my way of staying in the moment. I turn off notifications, reduce the amount of email notifications I receive and read on a kindle. As a bus commuter, it is nice to be able to read without having to be concerned about finishing the book and having nothing else to read. That being said, a long bus ride towns from work every day certainly slows me down, helps me relax and stay in this moment. Best wishes for your next steps in your journey.

    • Right on, Clayre. One thing at a time. Single tasking. Practicing presence in whatever that thing is.

  7. I so appreciate the thoughts you share. And always read them on my iPhone. And would not read them otherwise. Is what I read worth the distractions I suffer to read it? How can I minimize those?

    • Right? And I produce them on a computer, which poses many of the same risks of loss of presence. You may like Mike’s point below about each of us individually coming to understand what cultivates presence and then tailoring our environment to that.

      • Thank you. Yes, that’s a helpful point: to tailor my environment around what I’m aware cultivates presence in me.

    • Minimizing the iphone distractions is possible, but it required me to “retrain” myself somewhat. I can from a background of being on-call; having to respond to a pager. With the advent of iPhones and social media, that can be overwhelming. I’m still incapable of ignoring the red badge on an iPhone app😀. Even though the real world importance isn’t the same.
      My solution was to disable most of the notifications. That was the retraining. I don’t HAVE to respond or monitor. I also will consciously stay off Facebook and other social media for 2 (or more) day periods. A certain amount of abstinence in this area is very good for me.
      I look at it like this: If I won’t set a boundary or priority, someone else will. And in this case, those entities setting the priority don’t have my interests at heart.

      • Thank you, Mike. So true. I’m the one who must set the boundaries and priorities. I’ve had good practice avoiding notifications. Another step is to prune the sources of emails and delete some apps. More important and often more challenging for me is demonstrating my priorities by placing tighter limits on iPhone screen time, putting the phone down (or not picking it up to start with) and moving in directions that are more life giving. This is where action must counter thinking. Most often, my thoughts are making excuses and saying, “just a little bit longer.”

  8. Yes to hardcopy! and yes to feet on the earth participation! Gracious goodness, this is a voice in the electronic wilderness. I can’t tell my dear friends how lonely i feel when we can’t even sit together without them checking their screens. we didn’t grow up with this obsession; why we are so easily sucked into it mystifies me. I can see it with kids who’ve grown up virtually bathed in the blue light, but for those of us who knew better, to wit: life before the limitations of passive consumerism, are we caving to conformity? wanting to keep up with our kids?
    From an early age, even too much TV made me slightly dyspeptic. Guess I’m one of the lucky ones who feels the call of the wild. But it’s lonesome to watch the populace eat it up wholesale.

    • Electronic wilderness. Virtually bathed in the blue light. You have a way with words, Kate. I hope you’re writing somewhere! And thanks for responding to the call of the wild. : )

  9. I love that you found your epiphany through your wife’s thoughtful gift of a book and the discontent that you opted to examine rather than dismiss.

    For myself, I love books. I love them in my hands and smelling of dusty shelves AND I love them on my kindle that has untapped capacities to do all the distracting things your iPad could do, if I let it off its leash. There is one thing those electronic books do for me that those beautiful paperbacks and hardcovers can’t: they lend themselves to propping up and turn pages with a tap so that I get so much more sewing done while I my mind turns over each sentence. Mindless handwork keeps the pacing on my reading and mulling just right—for me.

    I’m glad you’re making a return to what works just right for you.

    • Right?! Since I’ve gone back to paper books, it’s much harder to read while eating! I have to use salt and pepper shakers to hold the pages down and it ends up a total mess. I appreciate the balance you add, as always, Shel. Your paperbook life includes, ironically, a Kindle and thread. Love it.

  10. Oh man. I hear ya! I do not read books on an electronic device. I am a paperback reader and would never give it up. There’s something so cozy and special to pack my book in my bag, read it on the bus, in the bath, on the beach, at the doctors or dentists, etc. I love it. That said, I well understand your suffering and also suffer from devices. My smartphone…..sometimes I want to throw it out the window. I hate how I am always checking: emails, texts, the news, etc. I am trying to set boundaries around my device….but it’s hard…..*says she while typing this on a device*.

    I tell myself: well, this is where I am at this moment. I am aware. Change will will come with patience, diligence and intention.

    • Exactly! As Mike said below, you won’t get closer to the wisest solution for you by beating up on yourself. Keep experimenting, attending, you’ll get there.

  11. I did not realize how much my I-Pad had made me into a wanderer. I would find myself when I was reading e-books skipping pages because it was simply so much stimuli because I was checking other things as I was reading. with a book, its just reading and that’s it. I read a book recently and I marveled at how I felt. Calm and relaxed and detached from the hustle and bustle and noise of technology. All of this stimuli has made our minds Mush, made it a place where we are no longer comfortable. Thank you Dr. Flanagan I will be living a paper book life from now on.

    • I hadn’t realized, either. It was that sense of being startled by how hard it was to return to a book that inspired this post. Could believe my brain had actually been rewired!

  12. While this subject matter is very light hearted I needed to know this today for the definition of suffering; for much heavier subject matter. Pain is pain but it doesnt necessarily have to translate to suffering. Thank you for helping shift my perspective.

    • Nikki, my stories are often just an entry into an idea I think is important. Thanks for looking past the story and into the idea. I’m glad it resonates and I hope it is redemptive for you.

  13. Couldn’t agree more about the definition of suffering. There is the sadness and pain inherent in mortal life, and then there is our ATTITUDE to what happens to us. Suffering has to to with the latter. Lately I have been pondering the importance of approaching the parts of my life and in the people that I love differently so that I minimize the suffering. Stop wanting the new job to happen, stop wanting the husband to be more this or less that. Resistance to what is- that is what makes me restless and unhappy. The circumstances are what they are, I need to accept what is and stop wishing for what could/should be! Contentment is the key to peace and happiness- how come I always have to relearn that?! :

  14. Wow! I so much needed to read this for so many reasons. Thank you so much, Kelly. I love the reminder of the definition of suffering as that is what I have been doing a lot of lately. And I love your description of a paperback life. Lately, I do more audio listening to books in the car to and from work and not so much reading of any kind. But I still love the description of the paperback life: to be present to what is, to both the joy and the pain, without excuses or anything, to drop down to the bottom to be able to find the exquisite gifts – grace – that can be found there is pure gift and grace for me at this time. Thank you!!

    • Thank you for this reflection, Jenny, and you’re welcome! p.s. Love audiobooks for in the car, at the gym, etc.

  15. Thank you Kelly for such a beautiful and timely post. I have been asked to give a sermon on Sunday and have been quietly contemplating what message needs to be given. You see, an interesting thing happened yesterday. I was in the church office and was faced with complaints about this season of Lent. Citing how joyous the Advent season is leading up to Christmas, the question was why is Lent so serious? Why can’t we just be joyous all the way to Easter? Your post is timely because it so clearly reminds us that grace enters through the darkness. Constant joy is like a manic without meds, the life of the party but not much depth. We need depth because we need all of life. Thank you for presenting this Truth in such an approachable and beautiful way. And of course, I will give you full credit so you may pick up a few followers! Dr. Kate

    • Kate, I’m glad I could speak into your Sunday sermon and humbled that you would use my writing. I hope all goes well with the rest of your preparation. Blessings.

  16. This is a good read, and yes, who wouldn’t want the “paperback” life? You present a horribly disjointed way of living that many of us or our loved ones seriously struggle with. Then you present a better life; “Doesn’t that sound nice? Don’t you want that life?” and then the article ends. Seriously? Not even a hint of a step to take or a habit to change or a way of thinking?

    Yes the paperback life sounds fantastic. It would be nice to know what to do to work towards it. Like, maybe even one tiny hint. This whole article is very empty and almost mean spirited without that.

    “Don’t these rock hard abs look better than your fat belly?” *article ends*
    “Doesn’t this wealthy family look so much happier than yours?” *article ends*
    “This job is so much more fulfilling than yours” *article ends*

    • It certainly isn’t intended in a mean spirit, and this seems like a chance to clarify why I rarely offer specific, concrete tips in my posts. There are three, actually. 1. I believe much, maybe even most, healing is the result not of new ways of doing but new ways of seeing. With my writing, I don’t seek to coach, I seek to offer a perspective shift. 2. Once a perspective shift happens, I have a faith in people that they already possess the wisdom to begin enacting it. 3. I wouldn’t want to be so arrogant to think that, without having met you, I could know what is the right solution for you. For what it’s worth, my concrete action has been, simply, to start reading paperbacks again. Hope this helps!

  17. Oh please tell me you’re referring to Gilead! That book changed my life. In fact, I wrote my own mini dissertation for my humanities degree in a letter to my mother, reversing John Ames’ angle. (Also, if you haven’t already, Home and Housekeeping are a must).

    Thank you for this.

  18. I just started reading a book that appears to be about the same concept but uses slightly different language to express it… the book is called Constantly Craving by Marilyn Meberg. If you haven’t read it I suspect you would enjoy it, especially if you get the paperback. 🙂

  19. Wow, this really hit home. Actually a lot of your posts do, but this one ringing very true. My son and I recently moved in with my mom so I can save money to buy a house. It’s very temporary as my goal is no longer than six months. It’s by far ideal so I spend every day counting down the number of months left and it’s making me miserable lol. Even this morning I told my son we’ll have our own house soon. Now, he’s fine. He loves his Grandma and they have a great time playing together and would be just fine if we never moved out. After dropping him off at daycare, as I’m driving to work I started thinking to myself somethings gotta give here and after reading this article I realize it’s me. I actually breathed a sigh of relief and acceptance.

  20. Hi Kelly,
    Thank you for your post! I am up to a paper-back life too, despite feeling one of the best things I have done is buying a kindle! 🙂 Though, as the fellow readers of you blog and yourself have said in many of the comments, choosing a paper-back life is not being against the tablets, computers or smart phones. I am not good at handling “the faster ……” (you can feel in the blanks with whatever is: faster reply, faster thought, microwaving food, running, etc) and I have to say, sometimes I feel like an outsider, but a long distance walking experience is what gave me the right point of view for this all: Have you ever tried to keep a meaningful conversation with someone next
    to you while both of you are running? Talking is not so easy when your breathing is fast, and when you need to focus when you need to exhale, and your thoughts cannot be the most elaborated ones when you need to focus on the floor where you are putting your next step. Certainly too, you cannot appreciate the landscape when the “passing by” is so fast… Yes, like everybody else, I wish that not so happy times can pass by fast, and like everybody else, I look for distraction in those times screen-sucking, turning on a movie on TV or wolfing down a chocolate bar without even enjoying it when joy is not within my feelings of the day, though I pray to have the “awareness” to recognize I am doing that so I can catch myself more often than not when I am away from “my real life”,… instead of just being in this freeway where life seems “to need” to take place lately.
    Thank you, it is lovely to know that there are others “walking” in the sidewalk too so we can talk to each other!

    Warm hugsCris

  21. First I need to say – nailed it,
    Second – I don’t own / use / have an i[anything] nor a smartphone.
    Still with a desktop – but still suffering the same way.
    Loved it all – and OF Course signed up for another newsletter – to add to the thousands I subscribe to. But the IRONY. Your free book is an ebook.
    I get it – it is the easiest, most available way to get it out to the public for FREE. I can always buy the book [I am assuming it is in paperback/hardback]
    I have read an ebook [or at least started it] and gone out to buy the book. I know and understand how cost for print has gotten so much higher – in part due to the digital age.

    Vinyl made a comeback.
    Print needs to as well.

    But your post – nailed the wandering of my mind – it made it concrete. Explainable, understandable, tangible – like the gift your wife gave you –
    I sincerely hope you stay with this – more people need help, guidance – yes I read your 3 steps. Yes I have heard of the ‘unplug’ retreats.
    The flip side is now we wonder and then wander on how to ‘best’ ‘most efficiently’ way of doing this – and back to the i[anything], the internet we go.

  22. Fantastic text. It’s a perfect explaination of anxiety. Though knowing the problem doesn’t always fix it.
    Thank you for the message passed anyway.

  23. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your description of “The loss of ability to stay focused and in one place”. I too have found it somewhat difficult. In this day and age with all the little computerized gadgets and what not… It has given our society the undeniable ability to become one of the laziest that I have seen.
    You seldom see any read actual booms any- more… Muchless using pens and paper to write letters. You don’t even have to really do research of your own for anything… Just ask your phone.
    I did take it upon myself to start ordering paperback books again. And have begun reading them. I had forgotten how caught up in a book you can actually become. Introll in the adventure to the point where you feel as if you are a part of the story itself. I miss that!

  24. But but but …. I want a paperback life on an iPad ~ I feel like this must be possible, but I have not yet figured out how to do this. I question if this is actually resistance as described by Steven Pressfield more than anything else ….

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