Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

I recently listened to Howard Stern’s interview with (Sir) Paul McCartney. One part stood out. Howard asked Paul about multiple instances where John Lennon had been cruel towards McCartney; didn’t he feel treated unfairly, hurt, resentful, Howard asked?

Paul essentially replied that no, that was just John being John, that once you accepted that as part of his personality, it was not hard to move on from such moments. After all, as McCartney reminded Stern, John Lennon had had a fairly difficult upbringing, and it would have been hard not to have been scarred.

Stern complimented McCartney on his generosity of spirit, but remained skeptical; “Sometimes you’ve just got to protect yourself,” he said. McCartney didn’t contradict Howard, but made it clear that his earlier statement stood – that was just John being John, and once you accepted it as part of the package of half of the greatest songwriting team of all time, it wasn’t hard to continue without feeling harmed.

What Paul McCartney spoke to there is what I learned some time ago as an OBG (Oldie But Goodie) one-liner (I’ll have several more OBG’s to share in this post). And yes, it has something to do with trust; we’ll get there. The core idea is that you’re always going to be hurt. But, how long you let that hurt simmer and fester is not a function of the degree of hurt, or of the inflictor of the pain, but of our own ability to get over things.

Suffering Is Optional

I’ve seen a few extreme cases over the years – infidelity, loss of a loved one, needless cruelty by a stranger to a beloved pet – where the “victim” was able to recover in what most of us would consider a remarkably short period of time – a matter of days in those cases. And I do mean recover – fully. To forgive (while not forgetting); to be free of ill will and obsession with the harm done.

Suffering, in such cases, is closely tied up with concepts like blame and resentment. We indulge ourselves with blame and resentment at our own peril. Another of my favorite OBG’s: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” They never do, but we continue to suffer – at our own hands, because resentment and suffering are, past some initial point, matters of our own choosing, self-inflicted.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, in a memorable TED Talk, describes how this is a choice available to all of us. Another OBG, this one from friend Phil McGee: “Blame is captivity, responsibility is freedom.” Blaming others is just another neurotic obsession which enslaves us; freedom comes when we accept personal responsibility for what is our doing, and let go the rest.

The “letting go” part is expressed in yet another OBG, this one from the religious tradition: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Blaming is yet another form of faux vengeance, of us attempting to play God by acting like we’re in control of what we’re powerless over. You don’t have to be an atheist to know that playing God is cosmically inappropriate behavior.

The Tie to Trust

And what’s this got to do with trust? Suffering, by this way of thinking, is an internal obsession. It represents the height of self-absorption, or high self-orientation in the Trust Equation. High self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. It traps us in our own interior representation of reality, and keeps us from virtues like empathy, curiosity, and ability to connect with others.

But reduced trustworthiness is not the end of it. Suffering also keeps us trapped in a self-reinforcing circle of paranoia and suspicion of others, thereby reducing our ability to trust others. If we can’t trust others, the odds of them trusting us are dramatically reduced. Ergo suffering reduces net trust.

Nobody has the power to take away your ability to suffer. You can indulge in it if you choose. But you can also choose not to suffer. And nobody has the power to take that away from you either.

To end on another OBG one-liner, this one from William Shakespeare: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Choose wisely.