Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is it True That 'Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional'?

Preface: I am not invalidating the following statement. I am providing a perspective that warns the reader to see them as proverbs, not laws.


“Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.”

-- Sylvia Boorstein

This saying can be taken in many ways. It rightly recognizes that we have the option of nursing our pain and turning it into protracted suffering. We have the option of finding ways to channel the suffering into less painful or non painful experiences.

However, my concern is that people interpret this to mean, “If your suffering lingers, you are doing something wrong.” Or that all suffering beyond the initial moment of pain is bad, useless and ineffective.


Imagine that the Twin Towers in New York had human consciousness. Imagine the day after 9/11, a spiritual Guru standing before the smoldering rubble pile of the Towers saying, “Ahhhh, very painful, but suffering is optional.” When does the ‘pain’ end and the ‘suffering’ begin? As the fire smolders beneath the huge pile of debris for weeks, is that pain or suffering? As the firemen, policemen and volunteer workers dig through the rubble – is that pain or suffering. As construction-workers use wrecking balls to dismantle old walls, and use blow torches to cut and disassemble girders and twisted metal for weeks, is this pain or suffering? As the bull dozers and dump trucks load and haul away the wreckage, is that part of the pain or ‘optional’ suffering? As countless families, friends and citizens wait for body parts to be exhumed, and grieve the dead for weeks and months, is that pain or unnecessary suffering? Some of these spiritual maxims can come off as quite calloused and trite, dismissing the role of prolonged pain/suffering as necessary in the renovation of the psyche or soul of an individual.


The Greek myth of Persephone is helpful here. Persephone was the virgin daughter of Demeter, Goddess of agriculture. One morning she strolled through a sun-bathed field picking wild flowers with her companions. Suddenly the earth shook, a chasm appeared in the ground and Dark Hades, the King of the Underworld, emerged in a charcoal chariot drawn by black stallions. He swept alongside Persephone and yanked her into the chariot, and disappeared back into the chasm. This is sometimes called the Rape of Persephone. This was a ‘painful’ event for both daughter and mother. The young girl was forced down into the dark Underworld where she ate a few seeds from a pomegranate, obliging her to return to Hades for a few months each year. What do we make of this story? Many have said this myth explains the seasons, and others say it describes the violent wedding rituals of ancient Greece where girls were forced to leave home and live with their husband’s families. But let’s look at it psychologically or soulfully.

One soul-making perspective would suggest that often painful events come upon us like a rape, unexpected and suddenly we are yanked from the sunny day into a dark depression. A painful moment becomes protracted suffering. This perspective would say it is not unusual to experience a great loss and know subsequent months of darkness as a result. Eating the seeds and being obligated to return to Hades for 4-6 months out of the year suggest that soul-making includes periods of sunny, florid days with companions, and periods of solitude and reflection in dark places. In other words, Persephone is in each of us, and suffering is not just optional, but required for depth of soul.

This is not a crusade for suffering or dwelling in darkness. It is a recognition that sometimes soul work is done through prolonged emotional affliction. Like the seasons, suffering has a course to run and work to be done; aspects of the old self to be torn down, rubble to be cleared away, renovating to be done at the invisible or unconscious levels of existence.


When my son was killed in Afghanistan, spiritual platitudes about unnecessary suffering were most often annoying. The pain of Jason’s death persisted for months. The pain became suffering, pathos, prolonged agony and it wasn’t optional, unless I chose pharmaceuticals or escapist meditation techniques. There was necessary grief, anger, melancholy, apathy and a host of other emotional wrecking-balls smashing into walls of my old self that did not want to be torn down. I could feel the iron thoughts slam into my head and heart, crushing my assumptions and expectations of how life should look. You should not have to bury your twenty five year old son. I was sure I was having a nightmare and would sometimes literally shake my head to wake up. I resisted and argued with the twisted wreckage of my perceptions of ‘the way it should be.’ I sat in the debris piles of old photographs and grade school journals written by my dead boy. I replayed images of his final living moments, standing, fighting, being shot, falling – was it on his face or his back? Unsolicited images came, of him bleeding and dying in the early morning hours in a remote Afghani valley. I sorted through duffle bags and hauled away old clothes belonging to my sweet son, touching them, wearing them, smelling them, weeping over them as I put them into boxes to take to the Goodwill. Many of them I kept. After about eight months, the darkness and agony began to subside, but this is another story altogether.

Was this suffering a waste of time? Was it really ‘optional’?

No. It was as necessary as the year long demolition and clearing of the Twin Towers. It was required. In order to rebuild a new dwelling, it took time to clear away the old deconstructed Towers.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus was looking at the huge Jewish Temple and said, “This temple will be torn down and in three days be built again.” John’s gospel said Jesus was speaking of his spiritual body, not the literal temple. Soul destroys and rebuilds. “Three days” refers to the perfect amount of time of destruction and suffering, and only the one suffering destruction of self will know that. Soul often unmakes before it remakes, and this is uncomfortable for most of us.

To continue, click here: The Necessity of Subjective Suffering

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