You mean there is a reason for pain?

Imagine being a prisoner of your own mind, vainly struggling against the despair, anguish, and hopelessness that assails you; imagine suffering from clinical depression. Imagine trying to walk down the street, board the subway, or get into an elevator aware that at any moment you may be struck by a seizure; imagine suffering from epilepsy. Imagine being young, attractive, married, professional, and admired by all while you secretly carry a heavy burden; imagine, despite the evidence to the contrary, you believe you are worthless.

Imagine suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, manic-depression, HIV, or drug or alcohol addiction. Imagine suffering from poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Imagine being the victim of sexual, verbal, or physical abuse. Imagine being incapacitated by migraine headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, or multiple sclerosis. Imagine being lonely, unhappy, or living with pain. Imagine . . . Why is there so much pain, suffering, sorrow, and anguish?

Is there a reason for our pain and suffering? If there is, it seems to me that the primary reason is to understand how others feel. For once we do, we can act with compassion; we can seek to alleviate their suffering. Once we are aware of pain, who among us can be insensitive to the suffering of others? Our pain, then, is the wellspring of compassion. Like Bret Harte (1836-1902), we will come to realize, “Never a lip is curved with pain that can’t be kissed into smiles again.”

In writing about this subject, the Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius (Meng-tse, 371? ~ 288? BC) taught, “When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even nowadays, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing.”

If our hearts ache because of cruel things said or done to us by others, the purpose of that pain is to make us aware of the suffering our careless words and deeds cause others to experience. Paradoxically, we experience pain so we may eliminate it in others, as well as in ourselves. We help to remove pain in the world by acting with compassion and by serving as a role model. For our example teaches others how to behave and inspires them to do likewise.

There is another reason for pain. It is the reason Olympic athletes embrace it. It is to grow, stretch, and reach our limits. It is to develop self-discipline, patience, and our threshold for pain. Yes, we actually welcome pain, for as the French Biologist Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) said, “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” Whether we refer to an individual or a society, suffering is often a catalyst for growth. A recent example is the events of 9/11, which led to a spiritual reawakening of America.

A third reason for pain is to experience pleasure! Does that seem odd? But what is pleasure but the absence of pain? Can we know one without knowing the other? Seneca (BC 3 ~ 65 AD) referred to this idea when he taught, “What was hard to suffer is sweet to remember.” The greater the pain we overcome, the greater the triumph. The greater the triumph, the greater the pleasure.

Also, suffering is a great contributor to the arts and, thereby, to the joy of man. Poets, composers, authors, artists, and sculptors have created their greatest works inspired by the pathos arising from human suffering.

What we have seen so far is that pain has meaning. And once we find meaning in suffering, it becomes tolerable. But we can go beyond the mere toleration of pain. You see, we suffer when we are FORCED to experience pain or discomfort. But once we willingly submit to it, even embrace it, we no longer suffer. This is what is meant when others say, “Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.”

From a theoretical discussion of pain, let’s use a concrete example to see how the principles apply to real life situations. The last example in my opening paragraph is based on an actual case. Laura is in her thirties, attractive, married, and a polished professional. She’s admired by all that know her. Yet, she secretly bears pain. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she is crushed by a feeling of worthlessness. She feels empty inside. Therapy may help, but it could take years and cost thousands. Let’s see what happens to Laura when she follows the principles already discussed.

After reflection, Laura is AWARE that others have no idea of her suffering. She listens to her pain and allows it to instruct her. She asks herself, “If others are unaware of my pain, can I be unaware of their pain? Can they too be suffering from a feeling of self-doubt? If so, don’t they need recognition, encouragement, and kind words to lift their spirits?”

Moved by compassion, Laura now makes an extra effort to boost the morale of all. She avoids all negative behavior. She makes it her goal to serve as a reliable team player. As she focuses on the visible or hidden pain of others, she directs her attention away from herself. Her mind is no longer preoccupied with her own pain, so it naturally begins to subside. Additionally, because she is doing good, she FEELS GOOD.

Other team members begin responding to the Laura’s goodness and tell her how they appreciate her help. Their kind words reinforce and strengthen her growing happiness. She is beginning to realize that she is needed and appreciated by others. The good she does makes her worthwhile, so how can she be worthless? She awakens to the fact that she is not worthless and plays an important role in the lives of others, including coworkers, family, and friends.

Laura has transformed pain into action and tears into growth. She has learned that though pain may be the absence of comfort, it can be the presence of compassion, patience, and inner strength. And she now agrees with Rabbi Simon Jacobson, who explained, “The tragedies of life must be seen for what they really are: part of the divine system of challenge and endeavor, which enables us to achieve the highest levels of happiness and goodness.”