When we are in pain, most of us do whatever we can to escape the feeling. While some things that cause us pain are totally outside of our control (and those things must be endured if not accepted) often times we can make changes in our lives that reduce our suffering.
Most of us have heard the adage, ‘Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional’.
I hate this kind of statement because: it can be interpreted to mean so many different things that the adage is useless as a practical matter, it has the potential of making us feel guilty or responsible for our pain if we are suffering, it is true in some situations but totally untrue (and even unfair) in other situations, and it sounds inherently condescending to my ear.
Sometimes life is crushing. As just one example, when someone we desperately love dies or leaves us, we suffer. If it is true that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional then we should conclude that we can’t control a feeling of pain but we can choose not to linger in that pain so that we continue to suffer. We can ‘opt out of suffering’.
Taken to its extreme, this means that if your five-year-old child is abducted and murdered, you can stop your own suffering through mental willpower, or courage, or determination (or in some other magical way about which I have no knowledge).
Clearly, I do not believe that suffering is optional. But I do believe that—most of the time— we have the ability to decrease our pain and increase our happiness.
We can do this in a number of ways depending on the source of our misery.
Ironically, one way to move in the direction of happiness, and away from pain, is to choose to suffer. In fact, I believe that most healing is dependent on our willingness to open ourselves up to suffering.
If you are reading this and you are in pain, you might be thinking, “I’m already suffering and you’re telling me I’m supposed to choose to suffer more?”
There are times when our willingness to suffer is the only path out of hell.
I’d like to give a concrete example of what I’m talking about so that my point isn’t lost in a sea of meaningless concepts.
If you are so terrified of romantic commitment—for whatever reason: you are afraid of abandonment or failure or being hurt— that you sabotage your relationships or only choose relationships that you know are safe (meaning they are dysfunctional or unfulfilling or abusive), you are going to live a life of continual suffering. You will choose people who will hurt you or stay with people who you don’t really love, or who don’t love you, because you know that they can’t hurt you nearly as badly as you could be hurt if you allowed yourself to be madly in love with someone, with total vulnerability, and that person left you.
The way to escape a life of ongoing pain or loneliness in the above scenario is to be honest with yourself about your fears and then decide that you are willing to suffer in order to increase your happiness.
I’m not talking about ‘a little pain in therapy’. I’m talking about real, deliberate, ongoing suffering.
You have to refuse to slip into fantasy when you meet someone, and choose to be alone rather than settle. You have to listen to your gut when it tells you that you are unhappy with someone, even if that means that your life might be turned upside down by the process of extricating yourself from a bad relationship. You have to allow your heart to be totally vulnerable when someone comes into your life who you know is good for you, even if that feeling of vulnerability is terrifying.
Every step of the way you have to be willing to suffer—which is to say that you have to keep your heart open and risk devastating heartbreak.
When you find someone who deeply loves you and you love them just as much in return, you are in a continuously vulnerable state. You have to fight, through the willingness to suffer, the tendency to put up protective walls within the relationship. You have to be willing to share your heart with another person and risk rejection. You have to be willing to confront difficult situations without turning away from the person you love, or getting defensive, or protecting yourself.
Frankly, most people are unwilling to do this. They live half-lives until they are all the way dead. They hide in unhappy relationships because, although their lives suck, they believe on some level that it’s safer to be miserable than to risk devastating heartbreak.
If you are willing to suffer, beginning with being honest with yourself about the ways you damage your life, and then you have the courage to consciously suffer, you will find that your life is not only less painful, it can metamorphose into a life of peace and ultimate joy.