There’s a saying: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I was recently reminded that we can either perpetuate pain–be it physical, emotional, or spiritual–or we can stop resisting it and receive its gifts. The difference lies in our ability to discern pain, which we can’t control, from suffering, which we can.
Pain is, in fact, a part of being alive. Sometimes I’m going to get sick. Occasionally I’m going to stub my toe (being clumsy doesn’t help). If I’m relating to other people in the world, I’m going to get hurt. Anger, fear, and embarrassment come and go, and there’s not much I can do to stop them.
Pain isn’t the problem. It’s what I do with it that’s important. When I’m in pain, I have a tendency to go straight to my head, where things very quickly get a whole lot worse. I catastrophize. I focus on what’s hurting. I think things like, “This is excruciating. I can’t make it through this.” Or: “Oh my god, what if this never goes away?” In other words, I add suffering to the pain I’m already feeling.
I did this the other day when I noticed that I was anxious again, feeling fearful, disconnected, and like something was terribly wrong. I was eating lunch with a close friend, and everything seemed to be going just fine, so I grew frustrated that something had inexplicably triggered my internal alarm system.
In the last few weeks I’ve been experiencing anxiety more frequently than normal, so I immediately thought, “Oh, god, this again? When will it end? Is this going to be my life, always feeling like I’m under attack when nothing is really wrong?”
I stayed on this road for a few minutes before realizing that I was just making things worse. So I took a few breaths, reminded myself that I actually have no idea what the future holds, and started to get curious. What was the pain doing there? Was there anything beneath it? What was it trying to tell me?
When I got curious instead of catastrophic, I began to feel a deep sense of sadness. It washed over me like a wave and suddenly I realized that I was sad because I have plans to move to a new city, and soon I wouldn’t be able to enjoy lunches like the one I was having with my friend with the same frequency. Anticipating the loss of that closeness was making me sad.
And then something strange happened. I felt the sadness and the pain of that loss, but I felt something else as well. I felt calm and grounded as the anxiety disappeared and it felt like everything was exactly as it should be. I felt connected to everyone else in the world because at one time or another, everyone has felt the kind of grief that I was feeling. And I was able to appreciate the time with my friend as a profound gift, knowing that it wouldn’t last forever.
When we choose not to suffer, we open ourselves to receive pain’s gifts.
Pain cracks us open. It connects us to the rest of the world. It teaches us what’s important and guides our action. Just as our bodies have an innate ability to repair themselves when we’re cut or bruised, so our psyches are healed when we make time and space for mendingto happen. Pain alerts us to the fact that such time and space is needed.
Pain’s gifts can be hard to receive, but they’re always there if we look for them.