Posted in after the diagnosis, care for the caregiver, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, Emotional Health, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Spirituality and Health

Pain and Suffering

We often hear the words pain and suffering in the same context.  When it comes to lawsuits we ask for damages to compensate for pain and suffering.  Are they really the same?  How to the two impact our lives when facing a health challenge?  I once heard a saying, “Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional”.  At the time I believe that was focused more on emotional pain than physical pain.  It does offer another vantage point on the pain and suffering dialogue.

My most recent educational venture was to discuss healing trauma through nature.  Will Taegel (, the course intructor,  gave us a definition of suffering:  Suffering = Pain + Interpretation.  I heard this an began to wonder about the equation and its impact on those facing a chronic or life thretening illness.  Was he saying that when we experience physical pain, it’s the interpretation that determines if we suffer?

As you can tell I do believe there is a split between physical and emotional or spiritual pain.  This leads me to another idea.  Is physical pain intensified when our emotional pain or spiritual pain is high?  You know I believe strongly in the mind-body connection.  The conclusion would be that emotional and/or spiritual pain would intensify the physical pain and would be the precursor to the negative interpreation and therefore we suffer.

I hear story after story of those with illness experiencing sadness, even bouts of clinical depression.  Does suffering come when we don’t do anything to alleviate the pain?  I watched a Japanese documentary on depression.  The Japanese are new to acknowledging depression as a condition that needs treatment.  The documentary focused on individuals as they begin taking anti-depressants.  The reality is that being diagnosed with an illness can be a contributing factor to suffering.  It becomes the lens through which we interpret everything, makes sense since the illness usually impacts all areas of our lives.  Do we gain anything by suffering?

On Friday I wrote about caregivers and the importance of avoiding martyrdom.  Martyrs are in a constant state of suffering, by their own choice.  My hope is that when facing any illness you choose not to suffer. Of course there will be things out of your control, but it’s up to you to set the ball in motion to alleviate the pain and eliminate suffering.  If you’re in physical pain, don’t hold out till the next doctor appointment; get on the phone today and get something to alleviate the pain.  In our age of pharmaceuticals, pain control has improved greatly…don’t suffer.  If you’re in emotional pain, get thee to a support group, therapist or coach to walk you through the pain…don’t suffer.  If you’re in spiritual pain, find a clergy person, guru, spiritual director, engage in a spiritual practice…don’t suffer.

It’s unfortunate that pain is often accompanied by chronic and life-threatening illness.  Avoid the interpretation that pain is punishment.  Don’t buy into the no pain/no gain philosophy used in physical training arenas.  When facing illness the idea that pain builds character is crap…pain hurts!  My hope is that you choose not to suffer.  How have you avoided suffering as you face your illness?  Share your ideas so we can begin an important dialgoue about pain and suffering.


I've lived my life in service to others. I'm focused on mental health and how it impacts our relationships, culture, and society. Through creative expression and narrative I believe we can impact change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s