On Pain and Suffering

I had a long thought about why we suffer. There are a few contributors — ourselves (our mindsets and our actions), other people’s choices, the laws of nature, and the general nonsense that is life. Part of me fully understands that suffering is natural and we’ll all experience it. I am sympathetic towards those who suffer, but I also genuinely believe that we cause a lot of our own suffering.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I see it everywhere. I see this willingness to suffer rather than to work through something. I see people who choose to suffer, to go through pain, rather than spend some more time and work hard to improve things as much as they can. I see it in myself all the time, so I’m not knocking anyone for doing it. I just know that every time, no matter what, it’s worth it to work through something.

So, what is pain? And, why do we choose to suffer? And, why is it such a problem that so many people would rather suffer? Let’s talk about it.

Pain is an interesting topic for me. I think about physical pain a lot because it has been a part of my life in many ways. As a clinician, I’ve come to understand that pain does not necessarily equate to tissue damage. However, it does not mean that the pain doesn’t exist! There are multiple facets to pain, one of which includes understanding the influence of the brain on pain. Which, in turn, relates to our emotions. Our emotions tell us so much, they are such a big reason people do things, think things, believe things, feel things.

And that, in itself, is the problem. Now, it’s not a problem to have an emotion. Emotions are normal, they are human, they are terrifying, but they are real, and they are okay to have. I used to wonder if I was just making excuses for myself since I feel a lot of emotions all the time. But I’ve finally come to understand that they are okay to have, but the only reason is because — I understand that my emotions are not reality. They are my reality, but in context, they are not reality. Feelings are not facts, they are merely small snippets of information that point to the truth. The problem lies in acting on our emotions and using them as facts, reality, or truth.

I think that when we treat our emotions as actual reality, we are giving ourselves over to so much more pain. We need to slow down, process things (when we are able, though we are not always able to), and let those emotions fizzle down before we say or do something that we might regret. And yeah, maybe there’s some suffering in there, working through the problem, but it’ll allow that pain to lessen in the future, instead of lingering forever and keeping you from being as happy as you can.

Sometimes I also feel that we enjoy enduring pain and suffering because it gives us a problem to solve. As humans, we are purpose-minded. I remember learning from someone at the dog park that dogs need a purpose to find joy in life. I know that dogs learn a lot from their owners and if there’s one regret I had, it was not giving myself a purpose during the start of COVID, and I think it influenced the puppy I was around. Oh man, it’s hard just thinking about it. But maybe that’s why we connect with dogs so much. Like, do cats have a purpose? (I really want to make a joke that they do not, because dogs are better, but I won’t, because some cats are also really cute. I just prefer dogs. Anyway). We have this urge to solve every problem that’s right in front of us, right away, as efficiently and effectively as possible. Which — is fine. It’s dandy. It’s good to be purpose-minded.

But the issue is that sometimes, when we have no problems, or when we have no actual pain or suffering in our lives, do we go and create our own problems? Do we make things out to be worse than they are? The issue with pain and suffering is that it’s subjective. What we go through determines how we go through future problems, and how we view it in the grand scheme of things. To someone who’s experienced death in the family (not me), small issues at work with supervisors and coworkers (me) may pale in comparison. And it’s no one’s fault that these disparities occur. No one should have to go through pain and suffering. And on the other hand, no one should have to repress their emotions just because someone around them has suffered more — now, there’s such a thing as tact and not being stupid, but — we all see the world differently.

But back to that previous point — do we make our own issues worse than they seem so that we can have a problem to solve? If that’s what you want to do, then fine, you will suffer a bit more — but the issue is that this concept seems to be invading everything we do. Our social media, the way we talk to people who disagree with us, the way we perceive challenges. We are becoming our own worst enemies because we are purposely avoiding reality. The real one that’s out there, not in our heads.

And maybe that’s why I’ve recently started really paying attention to military and law enforcement/first responders. I mean, there is no one tougher, no one who sees & feels reality & suffering more. Physically, mentally. Granted, I have no clue what I’m saying, this is just what I’ve thought about after reading books and listening to podcasts with veterans. I know I’m missing that big mental health piece when veterans return from war and when police officers have to drain themselves to serve others, and it’s just — nothing I could ever imagine going through. That suffering is real, it puts everything I go through into perspective. I think it’s totally fine to feel your pain and suffering, and to need help with it to get through it — but when we pause and put it into context, we understand that life will continue without us. Let’s not get left behind.

The problem with choosing/deciding to suffer in order to have a purpose — is that it’s not a real purpose. The suffering can be so easily fabricated. Rather, let’s save our energy for the times that we experience pain that we have no choice but to go through (ok, look, you always have a choice — but I guess I mean the things that we can’t control. We can control our reactions at the very least, right?). And look, I have done all of these things that I appear to be judging so harshly. I just truly believe that we have so much to give to the world that if we are spending so much of our time continuing to suffer — we aren’t our happiest. We aren’t making the mark on the world that I know we’re all capable of.

Yuck, that was much too cheesy for me. But I have to leave it there because that brings me to my next point. It seems that in modern America, the easy thing to do is to want comfort — we want an easy walk in the park when that’s never guaranteed. In Extreme Ownership, I think Jocko & Leif got this quote from something but they wrote:

Outcomes, not certain. Success, never guaranteed.

We have to start accepting that pain and suffering is natural — and that we never know what’s going to happen. We have to realize it’s going to happen, because if you live your life like I did for my first 22 years on this planet, you are going to question why you spent so much time being less happy than you could have. I know I keep saying that, but it’s really important right now for everyone to know that suffering does not need to happen nearly as much as we let it. Mark Manson talks about how life’s struggles give us meaning, which I can agree with — without getting into my past point, I like to mention this because acknowledging that life comes with problems is how you get to the point of “not giving a f*ck”, according to his book.

I get it. I understand wanting that quick fix — I mean, just last night, my temporary crown fell off my tooth because I accidentally flossed incorrectly. And I panicked, I genuinely thought I was done for — but I stopped, took a breath, I was fine. I just had to wait for the dentist’s office to call me back. And I got that fixed today. Normally I would’ve been angry that it messed with my day, my plans — and I was worried I’d ruined my tooth (I hate teeth-related issues) but based on some of the things I’ve been through lately, I knew I could make it. It might seem small, but to me, that mindset shift was more of a win than anything. I could have chosen to suffer a lot more, and trust me, I have in the past. I have broken down over things smaller than this and I just wish I had understood that I didn’t need to suffer. Because 1) I am a big kid who can solve problems, and 2) if I can’t solve it but I try as much as I can, then that’s that. I can’t change the things that I can’t change.

So maybe the trick is that we just have to go through more pain to understand pain. This is a very tricky topic but I just think it’s incredibly important to think about. As we move into this era where so much is virtual and electronic, where we can share our thoughts with everyone (I’m laughing because I can see the irony in this) — hang on, I meant overshare — , where everything is so accessible, it seems that we expect solutions to our problems and our pain to be just as accessible. And that’s not how things work, unfortunately. Oftentimes we need to look into ourselves before we look to blame the problem on something else — which brings me alllll the way back around to the concept of Extreme Ownership.

Maybe that’s the trick. We need to own more of our problems — and even our emotions and our pain — I mean, we have to at the very least acknowledge that they’re there. We need to sit back, slow down, breathe, pause, take a second, take a nap, whatever it may be. I’m not saying we’ll decrease our chances of the occurrence of pain, but what if we could lessen the blow? What if we could dampen those signals just a little bit?

Okay, this leads me to wonder if equating problems and pain are an issue because they’re not really the same thing…pain always causes problems, that’s a given, but do problems always cause pain? Maybe I’m referring to a problem as any kind of speed bump that causes pain in an emotional sense — fear, panic, anger, sadness, etc. But that’s a topic for another time. I think my biggest points were that pain and suffering are just going to happen in life, but there’s a lot we can do help ourselves…which includes actually working through the pain and suffering and not letting it linger over our heads because that’s no fun, as well as just slowing down. A lot. I feel like it’s improper to say we need to think critically about our emotions and our pain but…at some point, that’s all there is to it. Pain, suffering, problems — inevitable, but can we change how we perceive it all?

Athletic trainer, coffee lover, looking for a hobby I don’t have time for. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.

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