Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Recently a friend and I were having a conversation over a cup of coffee and this enduring adage came up. If I remember correctly, we were talking about exercise and how some people erroneously believe that once a person reaches a certain level of fitness, he or she won’t ever get sore after a strenuous workout again. We were laughing about how “it never stops hurting; you just get used to it.” As our early morning musings are apt to do, this turned into a much deeper theological conversation, ripe with the sort of existential quandaries best served in the early morning hours with a cup of joe or late into the night in the corner of a pub.
As our conversation went from aches and pains to pain and suffering, the topic of my role as a Hospital Chaplain came up. I shared with him that I believe one of the biggest problems in the Western World generally and healthcare specifically is that there is a pervasive expectation that we can and should live with no pain. This too is an erroneous belief; there is no such thing as a pain free life. Even the very best practitioners and the most powerful medicines cannot prevent all pain. Part of the human condition is that we will all experience varying degrees and manifestations of pain throughout our lifespan. In other words, pain is inevitable. Thankfully, the latter half of our adage is also true: suffering is indeed optional.
Though somewhat difficult to fully articulate due to its conceptual nature, physical pain is basically a combination of biological and psychological responses to a stimulus. Suffering, on the other hand, is the physical, emotional, and spiritual distress caused by a dysfunctional response to that pain. In short, there is an automatic cause and effect with pain, but with suffering, we have room to intervene. Viktor Frankl, a brilliant psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor who authored Man’s Search for Meaning wrote, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Chaplains live in the space between pain and suffering. So do many other healthcare practitioners. It is where compassion and true healing takes place. This is how there is hope when the prognosis is hopeless and how faith remains when all seems lost. I tell clients every day that it is futile to fight against all our circumstances- it is much more productive to make a decision about how we will respond to them. That is not to say we are completely powerless and must allow ourselves to be tossed back and forth helplessly, but I do believe that we would do well to courageously step into the space between stimulus and response where we can claim our freedom.