Monday, March 15, 2021

42. Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

In the Summer of 2000, Chris Bender and I bonded while he took exquisite care of his dying husband, Rick.  At 43-years-old Chris had already survived childhood abuse, trauma, violent homophobia, losing three husbands to AIDS, and was now preparing to lose a fourth to brain cancer.  I was 29-years-old and could not imagine how one could cope with such unbearable pain in their life and yet still maintain a sense of hope, optimism, love, and humor.  I asked him how he could live after suffering so much.  He quickly corrected, “Oh I feel pain, a lot of pain. I’ll be in pain for a long time. But I don’t suffer.”

What’s the difference?  Chris explained:  Pain is a natural response to a loss, to death, to change, to not getting something or someone you want.  It can be an emotional experience and/or it can also be physical.  If we are fully showing up and living life, we will feel pain and hurt at times. 

But suffering is different from pain.  Suffering is the meaning we derive from pain, our mind’s interpretation of pain.  Examples of suffering could be, “Life is so unfair, I’m a victim of the world,  why love anyone if they’re just going to abandon me, people are so cruel,” and so on.  Suffering is completely optional, it is a decision we can opt-out of anytime.  But if we don’t intentionally opt-out of it then it will opt-in to the mind and exacerbate pain, despair, depression, loneliness, addiction, and possibly self-harm. 

Chris and I had a lot of long talks about this subject as Rick slowly drifted in and out of a catatonic state.  To hear someone speak this way, while they are in the middle of a fairly catastrophic situation, made a strong impact on me and how I would live from that point on.  Anything can happen to us, we can be hurt in so many ways.  Yet our interpretation and response to the hurt is where we can assert agency, choice, and ultimately deeper understanding and calm. 

How do we change suffering?  It is altered through a process of rational thinking.  Note, I am steadfast in my commitment to “rational” thinking, not “positive” thinking.  "Positive" thinking for me is a lot of work, a lot of pressure, and sometimes harmful. 

Rational thinking gives us an opportunity to objectively assess a situation with the facts available, draw a reasonable conclusion, and respond accordingly.  For Chris this meant he felt the pain of Rick dying, but drawing from experience that he could survive pain and still find meaning in life, joy in activities, love in relationships.  He knew that there was still a reason to live, and often felt in touch with that reason through service for others.  Throughout the whole overwhelming ordeal, Chris stayed open to feeling pain while thinking clearly.

Deciding not to suffer is a constant mental exercise for anyone living in a culture that prioritizes misery, drama, blame, attack, and offers rewards and reinforcement for those invested in hurting themselves and others.  Yet just like any muscle in the body, our mind muscles can be developed, strengthened, and exercised on a regular basis if there is intention to do so.  Therapy is just one of the ways we can train our minds to think differently about painful events, and resolve to experience pain with reverence, calm, and healing.

Chris and I stayed very close for many years.  Some thought we were a couple, but we were never
lovers.  Or as Chris put it, “We are like Will and Grace -- we’re enmeshed without the sex.”  We were especially looking forward to his visit to New York City for my 40th birthday in the Spring of 2011.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  Chris died suddenly of AIDS-related pneumonia on February 5, 2011.  After being diagnosed 24 years earlier, it seemed his body had finally given out. 

I was devastated by this.  The pain was intensely visceral, it weighed heavy, it felt physically draining.  I was talking to my father on the phone about this, and he sympathetically offered, “I’m sorry you’re suffering like this.”

“Oh no, Dad, I’m not suffering,” I said.  “I’m in tremendous pain right now.  I anticipate it’s going to be awhile before I’m not in pain.  But I’m not suffering at all.  I am a far better human today than I would have been if I hadn’t met him.  His body is gone but his energy, his spirit, his thinking patterns, his humor is very much part of who I am now.  He's definitely with me.” 

I am carrying Chris’s abundant wisdom and love into my fifties.  The longer we live the more people we’re going to see die.  Many of my generation already had to cope with multiple deaths during the worst of the AIDS crisis, and now many more are experiencing multiple deaths during COVID19.  We can’t control what happens in the world, but we can reduce the suffering. Knowing that distinction offers me great calm and preparedness for the joy and inevitable pain that lies ahead. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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