The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

by Sonya Mohamed

Have you ever heard that saying about pain and suffering? That pain is part of the human condition and suffering is optional? The first few times I heard that, it made absolutely no sense to me. Pain and suffering were the same thing in the world I was living in. Pain caused suffering and suffering was painful. They were interchangeable and I didn’t distinguish between the two.

Suffering, as I’ve now begun to understand it, is the experience we create around pain, not the pain itself. Regardless of whether the pain continues, our suffering lasts for as long as we choose to engage with the belief that what did happen, shouldn’t have. We breathe new life into our suffering every time we believe that thought: this should not have happened.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work toward social justice, equity and access. It’s incredibly important to identify oppression where it exists and work to break down the structures that empower it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t grieve when we lose a loved one. It’s just as natural to mourn lives lost as death is itself. What I’m talking about is learning to notice when we become captive to our suffering. As I continue my journey, it’s been incredibly empowering to understand that nobody can make me suffer. It's a choice I make; I suffer because I choose to. And we aren’t doing ourselves, or this world, any favors when we prolong our suffering.

Trust me. I know how easy that is to say, and how difficult it is to do. As I’m writing this, I’m on a plane coming back from a friend’s funeral and can tell you I’m suffering. It also happens to be the day before the anniversary of my father’s passing. For the past 11 years I’ve found happiness and love and warmth in remembering him. At the same time, I’ve also found sadness in wishing he could have met my husband and wishing I'd had the chance to know him in my adult life.

I still have those thoughts and it’s not about not having or suppressing the thoughts. The difference now is that I notice much more quickly when I’m suffering because of my thoughts. As soon as I start wandering down the path of wishing Brian and my father hadn’t died, I begin to suffer. And I’m thankful for my ability to notice that. Once I notice it, I have the ability to move back into the space of cherishing, honoring and celebrating the time I had with them. I remember they are at peace, not in pain, and I am so incredibly grateful for that.  Joy replaces sadness and it’s incredible how powerful that is.