One of the most liberating concepts in our emotional journeys is that which tells us: “Pain is inevitable, and suffering is optional”. Under this assumption, we don’t have to control everything, since pain is “inevitable.” As long as we choose not to suffer we should be good to go. It also happens to be one of the most difficult philosophies to apply to our lives.

Admittedly, I was not always comforted when I heard this since it made no sense to me that there was a difference between pain and suffering. Am I to embrace some wacky claim that I am in pain because two of my children died, but I am suffering by choice?

Probably not. Grief is so complicated, and such an extreme example. And although I am always learning new ways of integrating my losses into my life, I don’t tend to get too worked up about advice that comes from folks who have not had to endure a day, let a lone decades of living without their child.

But that said, I think we would be silly not to consider accessing all philosophical claims to non-suffering, since we know it is in a uphill battle, and keeping a closed mind might just cause us to miss out on some little thing that can save us in one of countless moments that we can’t breathe, even if it only works once.

So let’s look at a lesson in suffering that is NOT grief related. Speaking of silly, I am about to get a little bit of that with my example. But why not? It drives the point home, and has nothing to do with real pain and real suffering.

The assumptions behind the “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” theory are that there is first a stimulus (pain) and then we choose our response (possibly leading to suffering depending on what that response is.)

Most nights I don’t make it though without having to use the lavatory at least once. I wake up and feel the urge to “void” (I never get tired of using nursing terminology even though I haven’t been in clinical practice for a decade and a half.). In other words, I wake up and have to “pee!” This stimulus would be the “pain” since it interrupted my rest.

Next, I have a couple of options. I can get up and do the deed and go back to sleep (this one causes the least suffering in my deep bench of longitudinal trials) or, alternatively, I can try to go back to sleep. And thus begins the suffering!

Maybe I do doze back off, but I wake up again with the same biological alarm ringing “have to pee!” Or maybe I fall back asleep but don’t really rest because I know I have to get up and I am putting off the inevitable. Worse suffering still, is when I start challenging my “have to pee” alarm and try to talk myself out of it.

For example, I might start a nice narrative in my brain about how I didn’t drink after 6pm last night so I shouldn’t “have” to pee, at all. I might go for the “mind over matter” approach and tell myself I am nuts and to go back to sleep. Suffering, suffering, suffering.

I hope you think this is as funny as I do, because it perfectly embodies the difference between “pain” and “suffering”. I can’t avoid the “pain” of my body telling me to get up, but when I try to deny reality, pretend its not there, or go back to sleep (proverbially or literally) I am knee deep in self-inflicted suffering.

At the very least, I just know there are people out there who can relate to this “lesson in suffering” and even if it makes no sense at least we can agree it is annoying as we get older, pee more, and sleep less. Perhaps we should all program a “stock” response to this kind of stimulus and the next time our bladders come knocking, apply the Nike philosophy and Just Do It.

Click to access the login or register cheese