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Pain vs. Suffering


A few months ago a friend told me about the lessons he learned as a teenager from his then terminally ill father.  My friend said that when his father was dying he said that sickness, pain and dying are not the same as suffering.  According to my friend, as far back as he could remember his father lived each day as if it might be his last, and when his father’s last day actually came he died in peace and without regrets.

I have thought a lot about this story and wondered is suffering an inevitable condition of life, and death, or can one separate sickness, pain and dying from suffering?

And is it inevitable that since we will all die, we are all destined to suffer, either as the one who is leaving this life or the person who is left behind with a void?  Or can we avoid suffering as my friend’s father apparently did through positive thinking and appreciation of what we have, rather than focusing on what we want but don’t have.

And, is physical pain the only form of pain that causes suffering?  Can emotional pain be a form of suffering?

After a great deal of thought, I do not think that pain and disease always cause suffering, nor do I believe that the worst pain is always physical.

It is inevitable that we will feel pain, both emotional and physical.

Circumstances Define Pain and Suffering

However, I believe that whether pain causes suffering depends on circumstances.

Unfortunately, I have some experience in this area.  Multiple times in my life I have experienced intense physical pain, and for extended periods of time.  But for me, physical pain, in of itself, is not suffering; even if the pain is very intense.

And, the death of a close relative does not necessarily equate with suffering.  When my parents died, I was sad and grieved, but they lived a full life and died peacefully.  Aging and death is the natural order of things so while I felt emotional pain, I did not suffer.

However, I have also known suffering.

When I was hospitalized I experienced irrational night terrors and suffered greatly.  I dreaded every night and couldn’t get out of my head the idea that I wouldn’t live to see the sunrise.

I suffered when my nephew unexpectedly died at the end of his freshman year of college.  My entire family suffered. We all still suffer from that loss.

On the other hand, I have never lived in a war zone or experienced or witnessed physical pain and harm caused by another human being.  I cannot appreciate the suffering of my Grandfather who came to America as a young refugee after witnessing the murder of his parents and siblings during a pogrom.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t figure out the difference between pain and suffering, so I did the only thing I could think of and “googled” the question.  As expected, the Internet came through and spat out literally hundreds of articles and books trying to explain pain and suffering.

According to various “feel good” websites, pain is an experience while suffering is how we relate to this experience.

Other “self-help” websites suggest that resistance to pain results in suffering while emotional acceptance that pain is real promotes healing and eliminates suffering.

Of course, every religion addressed pain, suffering and the religious interpretation of both.  Mostly I didn’t understand what the religious authorities were trying to tell me.

The website that stood out as the most arrogant in its certainty about how to avoid suffering boldly stated that “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  I was forced to wonder if this author really believes that positive thinking can prevent horrors of war and human violence, or that her recommendation of intense yoga, meditation and gardening will is really the cure for mental illness and deterioration from the aging process.

And, for almost 700 years Western Civilization has looked to Dante epic description of the “nine circles of hell” found in Dante’s Inferno for a literary interpretation of pain and suffering, and the human soul’s journey to God.  I found little guidance in Dante’s Inferno about the difference between pain and suffering but liked looking at the art work

My conclusion is I simply do not know if physical pain equates to suffering.  But I am certain that the worst pain I have ever felt is emotional pain that overwhelmed me and caused me to suffer.

But, what I am most certain of is that Tennessee Williams got it right when he said: “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.”

Mark Sunshine

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