Reflections of the Meaning of Pain and Suffering


As yet again my pain awakens me much earlier than I had hoped, and I look into my 3,586th day (or so) of making it through by juggling duties and self-care, I recall not for the first time the statement: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Haruki Murakami)

But then I think that to say that, implies that if I suffer due to my chronic pain, there is something I am not doing right, as if by a failure on my part I bring unnecessary suffering upon myself. After all, if suffering is optional, it would be preventable by me doing the right thing (whatever that may be). Is this so?

In the context of this brief reflection, it might suffice to say that, regardless of its origin, pain is a sensation of emotional and/or physical agony. When we are in severe pain, our experience of our world contracts into the smallest space.

Suffering however, is a very different event, brought on by the trials, losses and despairs of our human condition, and the overwhelming awareness that in this life, which is our passage between two Oceans of Light, we always exist in the space between the ideal and the real. The tension in this space enables us, might even force us, to reach our highest creative potential and achieve self-realization. At the same time though, it is a space which is also racked by unrest, doubt and grief. In this torment, something seems to open up. A door opens on the inside. In a manner of speaking, suffering expands.

“How cruel is the creature we call God, to regiment so brightly the beauty of the universe, and yet to allow such fetid decay here below.” (Elizabeth
Redfern, “The Music of the Spheres”)

We cannot feel someone’s pain as a sensation, but we can feel someone else’s suffering. “How is it possible,” Arthur Schopenhauer says, “that suffering, which is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to action?” Maybe because suffering, contrary to pain, which is a personal and individual experience, is an existential phenomenon? This is one of life’s mysteries and not easily understood, but I have yet to encounter any real in-depth accounts of personal traumatic experiences that include the claim that suffering is optional.

The idea that suffering is optional is based on the view that if we were to process and work with our pain in the right manner (again, whatever that means) we avoid suffering. But I really question that, because it is my experience that processing and working through pain do not eliminate suffering whatsoever. And maybe there is a reason for that. Maybe suffering, rather than being optional, is in some unfathomable way, necessary. What is meant by this?

Some are of the opinion that there is no deeper meaning to life, and therefore suffering is pointless, or at least pointless when there is no expected beneficial outcome.

At the extreme opposite to that stands the deeply mysterious view that human suffering is the very gateway through which we must pass in order to develop our higher faculties. “Like the eye was formed by light, the ear by sound, suffering and pain likewise form spiritual organs. The human being progresses to a higher stage through suffering.” (Rudolf Steiner)

I cannot even pretend to understand just a little of this, but strangely enough I am aware of an unknown hope that gets awakened within me when I read this.

Maybe the truest revelations can be found in the wisdom of those who experienced direct and merciless suffering, such as Victor Frankl during his years in the German concentration camps. It is a mark of his deep and profound transformation through suffering that years later he could say:

“It is here that we encounter the central theme of existence: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. For in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” (Victor Frankl,
“Man’s Search for Meaning”)

Suffering is a formative force in life, like light, resistance and love. Whether it is pointless, is up to each of us. We ourselves are given the freedom to give meaning to our ordeals and in so doing we decide whether our suffering can lead to a deepening of awareness and inner expansion.

“We must learn to suffer what we cannot evade. Our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrary things, and one part is no less necessary than the other.” (Michel de Montaigne)


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