Suffering: Optional or Not?
Back in 2011, I was a little bit obsessed with the quote, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is an option,” said by Lance Armstrong.
I wanted to write the quote on my skin with a black Sharpie during my first Ironman so that the people behind me could feel inspired too, but then I thought maybe it would just kibosh the mental tenacity it takes to finish the race. And, I still didn’t know how suffering could possibly be optional. So I didn’t do it. Yet, I remained open to the idea, and I loved the thought of controlling my own “suffering.” Was this really possible? I was an emotional child, turn numb young adult, and have since become a more balanced mid thirty year-old. Still, rendering suffering optional? I continue to be intrigued.
I have experienced suffering. From my own feelings of inadequacy, and shame, to physical pain following numerous athletic injuries then surgeries. What was worse however, was watching my mother as she suffered during the last twelve years of her life. Being on the sidelines = powerless.
Suffering is defined in many different ways. It is sometimes referred to as discomfort, pain, or stress. But I still couldn’t see how any of those feeling were really optional. In my mind, suffering is best described as a feeling that strikes when life doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to; when your dream and reality don’t exactly match. Sound familiar?
To finish this post, I needed to live my word. With a massive kink in my trapezoid from who knows what, I set off for a run. First I took my sister’s dogs on the trail and held a steady walking pace. Part of me didn’t like the knife in the back feeling, but I was also weary of an ankle injury. I arrived home with the dogs, and set out on the road.
It wasn’t just the kink. I ran a ½ Ironman on Sunday, have numerous blisters, and the day was just plain hot. This run was not going to be easy. But I wanted to observe my relationship with “suffering.” The physical kind, at least.
I resisted the urge to imagine the run in any form. I resisted the urge to focus on the kink. Instead, I talked to cows (for real), I observed traffic, and I let my mind drift. I tried not to engage in self-talk that revolved around should haves and shouldn’t haves
, and when I did, something interesting happened.
I considered turning back.
So I reset and allowed myself to gaze at the lake in the distance, to smell the white wildflowers growing in the ditches, and to feel and hear the yielding powdery shoulder of the road. I though about how my sister rides horses and I ride bikes, and how similar that really is. I remembered that I am in the town where my mom is buried and got excited about what kinds of flowers we could bring her. And then my thoughts shifted to shoulds and shouldn’t
and guess what happened?
I considered turning back.
But I didn’t.
I made it to my turn around point and embraced the massive hill ahead. As I made it to the top, my shoes started to peel back the layers of skin on my toes, my knees felt more like lead had been injected, and my breathing became more laboured.
Was this suffering? I was literally trying to provoke suffering, but instead I couldn’t take my eyes off the tapered road in the distance, the farmers tilling the fields, and the shades of green that quilted the horizon. Many of us have heard Baron share, “The pose begins when we want to come out of it.” ~B.K.S. Iyengar. Perhaps suffering can’t be self-induced. Well, not on such a glorious day at least.
There is nothing comfortable about suffering. No desirable outcome, not something we strive to do on any particular day. But on it’s frontier lives a plethora of opportunities for expansion. Opportunities to observe, to ignore, to be with, and to run (literally) away. It gives us the chance to endure, to re-evaluate, to make change; and often, profound change. It gives us a chance to slow down, to smell the wildflowers and to feel our feet connect with the ground. It provides us with a message, and might deepen our empathy, compassion and appreciation.
Is it optional? I still don’t really know.
If in fact, suffering happens when things don’t go the way we planned, what does that tell us about attachment to our