Is Suffering Optional?

being present habits self-care Jun 12, 2023
Suffering is Optional

Recently, I read a book called "The Road to Me" by Laura Drake.   Nellie, the grandmother in the book said, "suffering is optional."

This quote was a topic of discussion for our book group, both when we debriefed the book and also when the author attended.

And, it really got me thinking.

I emailed my Life Balance After 50 community of subscribers to ask them what they thought of this statement.  

Suffering is optional.

And, boy, did I get a response. 

Suffering is Optional

In my email, I took this stance.   Suffering is optional.  

Pain, grief, sadness, and crappy life experiences that happen to us are NOT optional.   Shit happens.   To every one of us.   It is part of being human.

But, it is how we move forward from the shit that happens that IS optional.  Suffering or not suffering is a choice.

I considered my own life, experiences, and relationships.   As I looked at those, I felt that I could easily say yes....sadness, anxiety, grieving was not optional.   But, choosing to turn those into suffering was optional.

I'm wondering if it is a question of how each of us defines suffering individually. For me, it feels "all enveloping."    Something that permeates every day and second of our lives.  A way in which one chooses to define oneself.

Growing up was tough for me.   I had an alcoholic mother and there was a lot that went with that.   But...I loved reading and school and being with my friends.  I loved french fries.  I had food, clothing, and shelter.   I was loved.  There was a lot of shit in my day every day but there was also a lot of good.

When my husband died at the age of 25 leaving me with our two baby boys, I had never experienced terror and pain like I did during that time.   

The grief and sadness was overwhelming on some days.   But, I don't think I suffered.   I woke up each day to those sweet boys.   I had friends and family there to support me every step of the way.   It was an awful time.  But, I knew, even then, that I had a lot to be thankful for.

Ever since reading this quote in "The Road to Me" I have noticed many women who, it appears, are choosing suffering.   Choosing to feel stuck.

Here's how I see it happening:  a painful situation is delivered to us.   It is out of our control.   It is our thoughts around the painful situation, and how we move forward in life because of it that causes suffering.   

We turn our pain and sadness into suffering.   And, often, it's created by not facing or accepting the negative feelings.   Or by focusing only on those feelings and not anything positive.

I read a post on Facebook last week in another group I'm in for women over 50.  I've noticed recently that the posts in this group have become increasingly whiny, for lack of a better word.  Many are complaining about other people in their lives, most often children and spouses.

In this particular post, the woman went on and on about how she had a grandma name picked out and her daughter gave that grandma name to the other grandmother.   

The purpose of her post was to ask the group members what they would do in terms of sharing with the daughter how upset she was or just keeping it to herself.

This woman has taken a situation that has made her disappointed and sad and turned it into suffering.   

And, I will argue, that if she continues, she will alienate her daughter and her grandchild.

I will argue further, that in this situation, if they become distant because of this, the sufferer will blame the other person, rather than look inside to see if she had any ownership in the situation.

If I am in line at the grocery store and the person behind me pushes me out of the way and cuts in line, I'm going to be angry.  But, if I'm choosing to continue to be angry about it for the month to follow, that is on me.    Not on the person who pushed me.

Now, I know that these examples seem minor.   That there are people who have cancer or other debilitating illnesses.   Those who are caring for people with debilitating illnesses.

Many of their days can be awful.  And, often they may be worried about the future and what that might look like or how much of a future there even is!

But, don't they have good moments in the day too?  Are they completely defined by this situation?

The Consideration That Suffering is NOT Optional

There were several women in our community who emailed me back with situations where they believed that suffering was not optional, and it did make me think.

It made me realize that my opinion that suffering is optional came from a place of someone who may have lived a blessed life.  And, my life is blessed.   But, was it blessed when I was 5 years old and my mom was passed out in our living room?  Was it blessed when I was sexually abused by my stepfather?   Was it blessed when I became a widow at the age of 24?

Yes.   To me, it was.  

However, some of the women in this community brought up examples of people who live in war zones.   Or, those who are victims of atrocities such as human sex trafficking.    Consider the Jews who were in the concentration camps.   

And, I find myself in agreement.   People who are going through things like that are suffering day in and day out and it is not optional.   Their suffering is brought on by the actions and choices of other people and is typically completely out of their control.  The things that they are going through are horrible, repeated, and constitute true suffering, at least in my mind.

Where Does All of This Leave Me?

One of my readers summed it up best in her email when she said that perhaps this isn't a question with black and white answers, but a very grey area question.

I can wrap myself around that.

For most of us, we respond to life events based on so many things:

  • where we are now psychologically and physically in our lives;
  • how we were raised;
  • our core belief system;
  • how much pain we've experienced in our lives. 

When I say that suffering is optional, I am speaking to those who choose to be a victim in their lives day in and day out.   Those who refuse to see the good things that happen to them throughout the day.

And, I need to be very clear on this point.   We all have life experiences that cause us suffering.   That cause us pain.   Grief.  And we need to feel these feelings.   To acknowledge these feelings.   To allow them.  These circumstances and feelings are a normal part of life for all of us.

But, they do not need to define us.

And, yes.   I do feel now that I've put this out there, that there are degrees of suffering.   

And that it is truly a very gray area!

I can't wait to hear more thoughts on this!