You may have heard this quote before: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”1
Sounds good, right? But when we’re the ones suffering, it feels anything but optional. And to suggest that we’re choosing to feel this way feels pretty insensitive.
So let’s take a closer look at what this saying really means.
What’s the difference between pain and suffering?
In life, it’s true that pain is inevitable. Every one of us will experience not only physical pain but also emotional pain many times throughout our lives. We will experience losses, rejections, and defeats, and they will hurt — there’s no getting around that. To suggest otherwise would be to deny our experiences and our feelings, and no real good comes from denial. (We may push those feelings down in one place, but they’ll pop back up in another — in our relationships, in our physical health, or somewhere else.)
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
— Viktor Frankl2
Many people assume that there are only two options for how to respond to painful or distressing experiences: (1) buck up and move on (deny our feelings) or (2) wallow in our misery. Neither of these options feels very good. Thankfully there’s another choice.
I love metaphors, and the Buddhists have a great one for this. They say that the Buddha described pain like an arrow.3 He said that when a person experiences pain — whether it be emotional pain or physical pain — it is as if this person has been pierced by an arrow. However, most people who are shot by the arrow — rather than stopping there — then turn around shoot themselves with a second arrow: with their reactions and interpretations of the experience and their resistance to it. They may ruminate on how bad the pain feels, worrying that it will never go away, coming up with interpretations of what it means about them that they’re having this experience, trying to fight the experience, feeling critical toward themselves for not just “getting over it” — and so on and so on.
The first arrow is pain, but the second arrow is suffering.
We have a choice
While we can’t go through life without experiencing pain, we do have a choice about how we’ll respond to it. As Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Frankl (1905-1997) was not only a famous and influential psychiatrist, but he was also a Holocaust concentration camp survivor — so definitely not a stranger to pain and suffering.
We can’t choose whether or not we’re going to experience pain. But we can choose to let go — not to fight against it (deny) or become overly attached to it (wallow).
But letting go is scary, right? It’s also freeing. (And it’s not the same as giving up — but more on that later.)
So what would happen if we chose to drop that second arrow?
Pain follows a natural life-cycle. It hurts — sometimes quite a lot — but it is temporary. It’s like a wave, and we can ride it out. Of course, when we’re at the top of the wave, it can be incredibly hard to trust that we’ll come back down again. We can fear that it will go on forever, and we can clench up against it. But if we can allow it to be without resisting it too much, it really will eventually subside. We can’t say exactly when, but it will. That is the nature of pain.
Suffering, on the other hand, can go on for as long as we feed it. If we react to our pain with resistance — if we ruminate on how bad it is and fear that it will never end or that it will overwhelm us completely, or if we clench against it and try to push it away — we just prolong our suffering. This is the part that is optional.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn4
Granted, it’s not easy to relax into our pain and just let it be, trusting that we’ll be able to ride out that wave. It feels counterintuitive. Many of us fear being swallowed up by the pain if we were to stop resisting. It takes a bit of a leap of faith. But perhaps it’s worth a try.
As you feel the surge of that wave, what if you just leaned back into it rather than resist? What if you stopped clenching, stopped fighting it? What if you took a deep breath and relaxed, allowing it to carry you?
If you do, you might find that — instead of drowning, as you may fear — you actually begin to float. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn rightly said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.
- While there is some debate about the origin of this quote, it’s often attributed to Japanese author and marathon runner Haruki Murakami: Murakami, Haruki (2009). What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, New York: Vintage Books, p. VII. ↩
- Frankl, Viktor (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press. ↩
- “Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow” (SN 36.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 30, 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html. ↩
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hachette Books. ↩