Are we in pain or are we in suffering? How we deal with pain can determine if we fall into the trap of avoiding pain. The more we try to avoid pain, the more we are likely to succumb to the misery of suffering.
Pain is part of healing. Suffering is not.
I don’t know about you, but I was raised in a culture where sickness and injury meant calling for a doctor and taking medicine to get well and to feel better as I was healing. I appreciated the care and commitment my parents and their generation gave to all of u; this is not the issue. Every time there was an injury or an illness, there was a pill or a potion brought into play. The pain we felt from any ailment was cause for action to relieve it, whether it was an aspirin or some other pill, a lineament, a tonic, or an injection of some substance that would help numb the sensation. If we felt pain, we always looked for a way out of feeling it.
As children, we are great mimics. We look to the adults and other role models, such as older siblings, to teach us. One lesson I learned was that whenever I, or anyone around me, got ill, there was always a medicine, in liquid or tablet form, to quell the symptoms and, if possible, a treatment for the malady. I saw my parents load the medicine cabinets with assorted bottles for whatever ailed us.
We avoid resolving the uncomfortable
Further, ‘the prescription’ at the end of the work day was a seemingly duly earned alcoholic beverage of some kind – at least one before dinner and more afterwards. I never heard my parents talk about how hard their day was or how hard they felt their life was. They did not talk about unpleasant things and saw to it that my brother and I didn’t either. We held all the unpleasantries inside of us; but there was no healing doing so, only a festering of unresolved trauma. Yet along with all this avoiding speaking of things that were uncomfortable, there was clearly something awry. I could sense the tension and brooding in the air as I sat with my parents in the evening. Often whatever the angst they were feeling under all that silence erupted in one direction or another – toward each other or towards me or my brother. Most of the time no one had done anything to warrant such an action; it was more like we were a handy target for the release of tension they had no idea of how to discharge any other way. More drinking and more medication became the solution to ‘drowning their sorrows’. Their pain was evident and the answer was always to numb it with whatever means legally available.
The fight against pain
I spent years fighting the pain I felt. The doctors and other health care workers around me did what they could to help relieve pain as part of their healing mission. I felt like all everyone was seeing ourselves as victims to pain. I appreciate the dedication of these caretakers to this day. However, never once did I hear anyone say, “Pain is part of the healing process.” Or, “Pain is sending you an important message.” Or, “It is safe for you to feel your pain.” It seemed to me that everyone around me was doing whatever they could to do anything possible to NOT feel pain. It is deeply ingrained in our culture.
Finding the center of the storm
We now have an opioid addiction epidemic. We are living in a culture addicted to numbing pain, yet the answer to the clearing our pain does not reside in the numbing. There is such a powerful and sacred place sitting squarely in the center of this storm of pain. There is a place of stillness and peace amidst all the pain that I have only experienced when I relinquish trying to control my pain and surrender to it. This quiescent act, allowing the pain to just be a part of me, leads me straight out of suffering and into tranquility. I still feel it, but its intensity drops considerably and lands in the tolerable range. Pain is no longer an adversary, but a neutral party sending me a message.
I see that my parents’ generation had their own set of limitations and beliefs. They did the best they knew how and tried to bring greater opportunities and a higher quality of life to the lives of their children than they had. As to the function of pain and how we deal with it, I feel they missed the key concept that the function of pain is essentially to be a messenger. It is a neutral party bringing much needed information to the body. It alerts us that we are injured or sick. It makes us stop and take action on its behalf: setting a broken bone, tending to an infection, resting the injured part. It also stays with us until the damage has healed. It is not a ‘bad; thing, but a very helpful one, as uncomfortable as it may feel to us.
Judging pain leads to suffering
How we judge the phenomenon of pain is the piece that I believe my parents’ generation and others missed. In addition to pain being a signal to us that we are injured, it is also a signal of HEALING. It tells us that we need to take special care to the place that hurts until the pain clears. It is not a ‘bad’ thing that we need to get rid of, distract from, or avoid. It simply IS. As an emissary for the state of our body, pain works to help us. We are not its prey or its victim. We are the object merely of its attention. Rather than trying to numb it with some substance, unless we are in danger of succumbing to severe stress related to a high level of acute pain, what would it be like to view pain in a neutral way as a messenger? It’s not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is part of life. It helps us survive and heal.
When we judge it as ‘bad’, as something we want to avoid at all costs, as a nuisance – we move from pain to suffering. We suffer when we resist the pain. We suffer when we do not want to accept the pain. We suffer when we all we want is for the pain to go away. When we suffer, it is because we are trying to live in a reality other than where we are in the moment.
Surrendering the fight with pain
I, and many of us, grew up watching others dull every pain they experienced and we followed suit. I am not advocating against medication. I am advocating for accepting the reality of pain as the messenger it is, doing its best to guide us during its presence. It amazes me how much my level of pain shifts to much more ease when I stop fighting with it, surrender to it, and accept it for what it is. I feel its energy as flowing through me, busily rebuilding the injured area. When we try to avoid pain, we are turning away from ourselves, we run the risk of missing the important lesson it is bringing us, and we fall into unnecessary suffering. Pain is part of healing. Suffering is not.