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.

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