There is pain, and then there is suffering. The division between the two can get a bit fuzzy, but on one end we have things like “my fish just died” or “that dog just bit me” or “I just got fired from my dream job.”
On the other end we have things like “My father never loved me and I am angry” or “the world is unjust because my best friend killed herself” or “It’s been ten years and my abuser still haunts my thoughts.”
One side of the scale is an immediate, visceral reaction to pain that seems to be designed to get us to escape whatever is hurting. The other end is what happens after – when we’ve categorized the pain into part of the “story of our lives”, when we recognize how this affects us, and we’ve decided that it is bad.
When it comes to suffering, this frequently isn’t something we do voluntarily to ourselves. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like a wound so great that it stayed open while all the others closed.
Other ‘bad’ things that happen to us frequently don’t seem so unfair – losing a footrace sucks, but it gives you the motivation to get better. Getting cheated on really sucks, but now you’ve learned what kind of relationship you want and how to look for it. Losing a job? You get the ability to find better employment, or go your own way, or whatever happened to you last time you lost a job and came out of it alive. The experiences might be terrible, but you’ve undergone a multitude of terrible experiences without indefinite suffering, right?
This is because the pain of those experiences are a price we pay to get an equivalent reward, whereas suffering comes when we’ve paid a price and got nothing in return. It comes from a sense of injustice. It is being cheated by life. It is that emptiness in your hands after the death of someone you love. It is that pointless void left from a parent who didn’t believe in sparing the rod. It is the unanswered why? Because there is no reason. You gained nothing. There was no equivalent exchange.
Sometimes I complain about my job as a camgirl.
This is absurd. I am one of the luckiest people alive. I have an amazing job doing fun work for people I like talking to for a great income. I am living the dream. And yet, after four years, somehow I get discontent about it.
Sometimes I have to take myself by the shoulders and shake a bit. I remind myself of the contrast, of how life would be without camming. I go to the store and look at a box of tampons that cost 8.25 and I think “I used to have to work an hour for that.” The gratitude comes flooding back pretty quickly.
I think we’re all pretty familiar with the concept of the power of perspective, the ability to change the way we feel about the world by changing what we pay attention to.
The trick to healing from suffering, I think, is deciding that the pain was worth it.
How do you decide the pain was worth it? Find out what it gave you.
I have a friend who told me her story. She had an emotionally abusive father and, as an adult, experienced a great deal of suffering about her childhood for many years. It impacted her relationships, her ability to function at jobs, and her mental health – until one day in psychedelic-assisted therapy she sat down and “relived” her traumatic experiences, from her earliest memories to leaving home.
This was immensely painful for her, but the contrast of shifting from the memories of childhood trauma into memories of adult freedom made her feel overjoyed and she realized the things she had gained from that experience. It taught her that the world could be so much worse, which gave her a deep gratitude for things she had now, whereas so many others seemed so pessimistic. It taught her heightened awareness of emotional boundaries which helped her to avoid damaging relationships herself. It had taught her that she could endure horrible things and come out alive, which gave a rare confidence few other people seemed to have.
And she realized that the benefits she had gained were so great that, if given the choice, she would live her life over again exactly the way it was. It had been absolutely worth it.
And in deciding that it had been worth it, the suffering ended. Life had no longer cheated her. Life had made a fair trade.
You can always find the thing pain gives you, if you look hard enough. Sometimes that search takes years. Sometimes it’s hidden deep. It takes a very specific kind of hunt.
It’s also different for everyone. There is no One True Path of meaning gained from tragedy. Whereas my friend found her price in gratitude, others might have found it in something like “being able to empathize with others who have endured the same” or “knowing what not to do to my kids.” And lots of people around us have problems or insecurities that came from a lack of difficulty rather than a surplus. Your life is a story and your character might just be climbing a higher mountain than most. If anything, there’s a little bit of “worth it” in knowing that more people would watch your movie.
If you want to read more along these lines, I highly recommend the book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the top 5 most influential books in my life. It was written by a neurologist and psychiatrist who went through the goddamn holocaust and then wrote about the ways humans deal with trauma.