I’ve read many many reports documenting the experiences of people who have pain. From medical to physiotherapy to occupational therapy to nursing, without distinction the phrase that leaps from the page is ‘The patient suffered a [insert pain problem here]’. Sigh.
My question is, does suffering inevitably accompany pain? Really? What about the pain that accompanies winning a marathon? The pain that accompanies birth? That blissful pain that goes along with a really vigorous massage?
If you go into Wikipedia, you’ll find this definition:
The word suffering is sometimes used in the narrow sense of physical pain, but more often it refers to mental or emotional pain, or more often yet to pain in the broad sense, i.e. to any unpleasant feeling, emotion or sensation.
Now I’m not the only one who has pondered this. Far wiser and more experienced philosophers and pain researchers have mulled over the conflation of the terms ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ – for one of the best summaries, you can’t beat Turk and Wilson’s editorial in the June Clinical Journal of Pain.
From my Judeo-Christian background I had aligned the ‘acceptance’ of suffering as ‘good for the soul’ as something to do with the religion of my birth. BUT a quote from Hindu scripts provides just as strong an indication that many religions encourage forbearance in the face of negative things:
Worthless are those who injure others vengefully,
While those who stoically endure are like stored gold.
The gratification of the vengeful lasts only for a day,
But the glory of the forbearing lasts until the end of time.
Though unjustly aggrieved, it is best to suffer the suffering
And refrain from unrighteous retaliation.
– Tirukkural 16: 155-157
I wonder whether some of the blurring between ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ exists because of an underlying belief that suffering is somehow good for the soul.
Anyway, back to pain and suffering – from my own experiences with chronic pain, the negative emotional impact varies from day to day. There are days when pain is simply an experience, there are other days when I’m fed up with and frustrated by my pain. Then there are other days when I can deliberately and thoughtfully put my ‘judgements’ to one side and simply experience the sensation of pain. This is where mindfulness practices pays off for me.
Turk and Wilson suggest ‘If our analysis is correct, a treatment may reduce suffering but not necessarily alleviate pain. The converse is also likely to be true. There are a number of treatment outcome studies confirming that reduction in pain may occur without being accompanied by improvements in physical, emotional, and social functioning. There are studies demonstrating that patients may be satisfied with the treatment they receive for their pain without demonstrating any concomitant reduction in pain severity.
Conversely, there are studies demonstrating that patients may be satisfied with the treatment they receive for their pain without demonstrating any concomitant reduction in pain severity…
On the basis of the points raised above, perhaps it is time to stop assuming that pain and suffering are isomorphic, and unless there is specific knowledge that a patient with pain is suffering (some formal assessment), it may be time to stop referring to patients with pain as if they are suffering from a painful condition rather than that they simply have a painful condition.’
They end with a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’’ I don’t think anyone can put it better than this really.
Turk, D., Wilson, H. (2009). Pain, Suffering, Pain-related Suffering—Are These Constructs Inextricably Linked?. Clinical Journal of Pain (25)5, pp 353-355.