Highest level: Compassion

Easter week and today in particular, Good Friday, invites us to reflect on suffering’s important role in our lives. To be lifted up you have to have been down at some point first. Pain, suffering, and mortality are simply facts of our existence. We need sorrow to have the possibility of joy. We certainly get plenty of experience with the trials of life and are provided ample motivation to consider our philosophy for dealing with pain.  Modern life on the planet appears to inherently expose us to a continuous state of crisis as a world community. A well-deliberated approach to suffering is crucial in medicine as well as in living a full life. I have a lot of thoughts on suffering, and I’d like to examine some here to see how we can deepen our approach to it.

1. Avoidance of Pain. This is a shared starting point. It’s a straightforward, face-value, survival-level approach. The less pain we can experience, the better. The more comfort we can find, the better. We all incorporate this to some degree. Optimally, this can lead us to good decisions in an effort to control personal health outcomes: taking safety measures and adopting good habits. However, if we live too strongly in this philosophy we are only open to part of our existence. We shun the trials. We need to be able to add more thoughts if we want to not be limited.

2. The next level: acceptance. It starts with taking interest in our entire experience. Curiosity is always an interesting step. From a certain therapeutic standpoint, we learn to face pain with genuine interest and listen to it like an instructor. It invariably shifts in some way when we do this. We learn to separate the phenomena from our reaction to it. We learn our fearful reactions create a lot of static. There’s a lot that gets let go when we open to the phenomena and stay just with what is there. The editorials get put on pause. We go beyond controlling our circumstances to going with them. There is a new presence of ease when we are open to the whole spectrum of experience. We can breathe fully.

3. Another level: finding meaning. We can find meaning in suffering when we learn to see the bigger picture associated with it. The labor pains of delivering a baby provide the archetypal experience for this. There is a reason for the pain. It is leading to something. Athletes understand this. So do students. Sacrifice and trials now lead to important circumstances and consequences later. Of course, we don’t always immediately have access to the big picture right away, if at all. So even if the meaning of the pain is not clear, being open to the possibility of a larger movement can change a lot. People are most proud when they overcome a challenge. That, in and of itself, provides the meaning that justifies the obstacles we face and transforms them into developmental stepping stones.

4. Highest level: Compassion

This is the transformer of all. I would offer that pain is not the scourge that we should be working to stamp out, rather it is the unaccompanied or unobserved pain. To some degree, we are equipped to face many things alone and this is important. We have to bear our own cross. On the other hand, we can’t bear it alone, and pain in our fellow man or woman provides us the opportunity to provide care and relief for each other. It’s a fact that it takes two to love, and it takes suffering for there to be compassion. Viewed from one perspective, the one who suffers has taken a courageous step to allow others the opportunity to redeem it through their compassion.