Pain and Suffering

I spent a few minutes this morning reading Dr. Richard Sobel’s poignant reminiscence Reunion with the Dead on the Cell2Soul blog. For twenty-six years Dr. Sobel had been the physician for an Israeli kibbutz, where he still resides.

One of Sobel’s lines struck me: “Pain could usually be controlled, but suffering involves far more than pain. That suffering can be controlled is a myth we tell to ourselves and our patients.” As clinicians, we can control pain but never suffering.

I had just finished re-reading Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey last evening before crawling into bed. The last time I read the novella was in high school. Back then it was required reading. Last night I picked it off the shelf and read it straight through for pleasure and to see if I could grasp the tale as a whole.

As I lay awake in bed early this morning, thoughts of Wilder’s characters drifted through my head. Each one of the five who died when the bridge collapsed had reached a point in life where they elected to dispense with self-imposed suffering brought on by unrequited love and start afresh. Their deaths in turn provoked a new attitude toward life in those significant others left behind.

The first group suffered in life; the second group suffered after their passing. Yet this suffering served to purify their outlook and strengthened their resolve to love.

A high school biology teacher once told his class that as students their opinions weren’t worth much, because up to that point in life most of them hadn’t suffered enough. Years later a college professor would make the same remark to a group of students in his graduate seminar. Both implied that in some way suffering works to mature us.

Suffering may arise secondary to an individual’s attitude or outlook. Sometimes we suffer needlessly through self-pity and throw ourselves into the depths of despair. Sometimes we allow others to inflict suffering upon us. And sometimes we suffer through no fault of our own; it’s simply the hand we are dealt at the time.

As clinicians, we have the pharmacologic tools on hand to relieve pain in our patients. Suffering is another matter entirely. Although we may attempt to alleviate suffering by practicing the art empathetic understanding, many times we fall short of the mark. In some instances it may be for the best.

Suffering provides each of us with an opportunity for growth. It imparts depth to our lives. Although not pleasant at the time, it allows us to ponder our lot, rethink our priorities, and move ahead with renewed strength toward maturity.

Purple Fairy Wings

“I see the purple fairies have retired their wings for the season.”

“What are you talking about, Pop-pops? There are no such things as fairies.”

My seven year old granddaughter and I are sitting at the kitchen table discussing fairies over coffee and cream. That is, I have a mug of coffee with cream; she has a small cup of warm milk with a dollop of coffee for color.

“Of course there are fairies. You can see their wings hanging outside on the fire bushes.”

“Pop-pops, how old are you?”

“Me? I’m fifty-four years old.”

“You’re fifty-four years old and you still don’t know that there are no such things as fairies?”

“Then how do you explain the wings?” I ask her.

“Why don’t you take her outside and show them to her,” my wife suggests.

We put on our hats and coats and step outside into the November cold. “Over here,” I say, pointing to the red-leafed bushes that line our driveway.

Scattered among the leaves you can see tiny stalks with red berries on each end. Above each berry hang two tiny purple convex husks joined by a circular collarette that surrounds the stem.

“There, see?” I point out the tiny purple structures which resemble small sets of wings, just the right size for fairies.

My granddaughter eyes them carefully, then rubs her nose. “I don’t know, Pop-pops; are you sure—”

“Of course I’m sure. Look—see here—this is the collar that the fairy places around her neck, and attached at the back are the wings.”

“There sure are a lot of them.”

“That’s because all of the fairies have hung them up for winter. Fairies can’t stand the cold. They spend all winter in their underground cottages by the fire, sipping tea with honey. They’ll come out again when the weather warms up in the spring.”

“Why is there a red berry with each set of wings?”

“So the fairies can find them.”

“How does each fairy know which set of wings are hers?”

“Good question. I’m not sure about that myself.”

“Can we go back inside now? I’m a little cold.”

We retreat into the house, hang up our coats and hats and return to our coffee at the kitchen table.

“Are you sure about the fairies, Pop-pops?”

“Of course I’m sure. You saw the wings, didn’t you?”

She takes a sip of coffee milk and stares off into space, seemingly contemplating the deeper questions of life. Then she says: “Next thing you know, you’ll probably be insisting there’s a Santa Claus, too.”