A few days ago I was running my eleventh marathon, and I did something I’d never done before: I dropped out. It was a gradual decision. Early on I noticed a certain, highly uncharacteristic, listlessness, and then I started coughing, and feeling short of breath, and then a bit light-headed, and it occurred to me that I still had the cold I thought I’d shaken off a week previously. As I passed the 14-mile mark I decided it wasn’t worth it, and I stopped.
I wasn’t in a lot of pain, but running has taught me that pain is a language, and sometimes the messages spoken softly are the ones you need to listen to most carefully.
You might think I’d be upset about my first DNF (Did Not Finish), but I wasn’t. A few years ago I was reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I came across this line: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” My son thinks this is very Buddhist, and I’m inclined to agree.
I confess I’d never given much thought to the distinction between pain and suffering. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy to be providing exact definitions of terms that clearly mean a lot of different things to different people. But here are some thoughts that have worked for me. I see suffering as a psychological reaction to pain. That’s why suffering is optional. With pain, you don’t get to choose: It just shows up.
I hasten to add that pain can be physical or mental. Years ago the grandmother of a friend said this to me about children: “When they’re little they tread on your toes; when they’re bigger they tread on your heart.” And in both cases, it seems to me, there is pain.
But is there suffering? Well that’s up to you, or, in the case of my first DNF, it was up to me. I decided not to suffer. I’ve been doing that a lot since I read Murakami’s book. It feels good. There’s a freedom and a clarity to not suffering. Also it allows you to focus on dealing with the pain.
There is a downside, though. Suffering clearly buys you quite a lot in America today. First of all, it makes you a victim. And everybody in America seems to want to be a victim. Even billionaire hedge fund managers feel free to announce that they’re victims. It turns out that people like me think the taxes hedge fund managers pay are too low. So I’m the oppressor, and they’re the victims.
And suffering gives you something else – anger. Which you are free to hurl at your oppressor whenever and wherever you choose.
I remember, during the last World Cup, watching soccer players unaccountably drop to the ground and start writhing as if in pain. This is apparently, on the world stage, how you try to convince an official that a foul has been committed.
It seems we’re a lot like that now. You might almost call suffering a national addiction.
I prefer the baseball player who gets hit with a pitch and trots nonchalantly to first base. Getting hit by a thrown baseball hurts quite a lot – I know this. I also know that that baseball player is not going to rub his arm while he’s standing at first base. Not gonna happen.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about lowering the level of vituperation in our public discourse. We all need to calm down and be less angry, we’re told by a variety of self-appointed hall monitors. But how exactly are we supposed to do that? Once you’re a victim, once you’re suffering, anger is pretty much inevitable.
Here’s my thought. Anger proceeds from suffering. Strong link, pretty much unbreakable in my opinion. Suffering proceeds from pain. It’s a psychological reaction, remember? And, I think, a pretty weak link. Cut that link, and nip the whole victim syndrome in the bud.
If you want to. It’s up to you.
So how do you do it? How do you slay the suffering monster? I suspect that each one of us is different. I’ve found laughter is very useful, and I’m planning to do a lot more of it in the coming months. And maybe I’ll enter another marathon.