July 12, 2023

From the Rector…

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” I read those words recently and was struck by the simplistic truth they offered and yet the complicated way we understand them. None of us desires either pain or suffering—and yet so much of our life is defined by the experience of both.  

Pain is present from the moment of our birth. We scream as we come into the world—not out of fear but pain. We experience growing pains as our bodies—bones and muscles and tissues—stretch and expand. Our hearts break over and over again as we learn what love is and what it is not. Our egos are hurt when we don’t succeed at something or don’t live up to someone else’s standards (or maybe even our own). We stub our toes, hit our thumb with a hammer, break a bone, have to get a shot from the doctor or a filling from the dentist—pain is inevitable. It happens.

Suffering is a little different. We all suffer, but we have some ability to choose our sufferings or, at least, how much we will suffer. We might experience pain as we recover from surgery, but the amount of suffering related to that pain is a choice. When I was a seminarian, I worked as a chaplain in a hospital one summer. Everyday I visited the dialysis treatment room. There were a lot of regulars. As I got to know them, I began to realize that though all of them were experiencing the same treatment, some of them were suffering at a greater extent than others. They were tired and voiced a lot more negativity than others receiving the treatments. This made me curious, and I started asking questions and researching the various patients receiving dialysis. I thought maybe the ones who seemed to suffer more than the others had been there longer or their illness was of more tragic circumstances. What I discovered was that there was no seemingly difference between those who expressed greater suffering than those who did not.  

The patients noticed my interest and they began to offer explanations as to why some were so positive, and others were not. Invariably those explanations had to do with the amount of gratitude they felt related to their circumstances in life. There was one particular fellow who was retired and always groused about his appointment time not understanding why they couldn’t schedule him at a different time. Another came straight in from work—always in a rush because he was running late—apologizing for his tardiness and thanking them for having a spot for him. I asked him why he didn’t try to reschedule as he was so often late, and he said that the clinic was always so full that he was just happy to be able to get there for his appointment so he could continue to work—he was a city bus driver. Neither of them was grateful for the disease that required them to have dialysis, but both said they were grateful that there was treatment. Yet, the bus driver seemed to suffer less than the retired fellow. He verbalized his gratitude for the clinic and staff and even the other patients. He was always cracking jokes and trying to make other’s laugh.  

There are circumstances in all of our lives that will lead us to pain—that is part of being human. But the amount of suffering we attach to that pain depends on our perspective. Our sense of gratitude versus expectations of the world will shift our perspective into more positive aspects of the world and of others and decrease our suffering. Verbalizing complaints over compliments will influence our perspective and lead us into greater negativity and thus greater suffering. The way we choose to see the world; what we give attention too will dampen our spirit or help it soar. It will contribute to our suffering and demise or our compassion and vitality. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Steve and I have a little game. If one of us complains about something or someone—no matter who or what it is—we have to follow that up with three positive things about the experience or person or whatever our complaint related too. Not because we are trying to always be “on the sunny side of life” but because we want to be people who choose not to suffer even when the circumstances would warrant that response. And that starts by noticing the good things that are happening in the world, all around us, every single day. There is too much suffering in this world already. The sad thing is that it doesn’t need to be that way—not because we can take pain away from ourselves or even from others—but because we’ve allowed ourselves to be distracted by the negatives; to sink into the darkness. Choose the light—find the gratitude and verbalize the positive—especially about the pain.

Light and Life,