Is there even a difference between pain and suffering?

It is ultimately your choice.

No, you cannot control most of what is happening or what may happen to you. The world often follows rules and principles that are beyond your scope of influence.

But you can choose how you respond. You can always do something. Even if it’s only on a very internal level. Even if you simply decide that you will keep your head up.

Most of us have at least once come across the famous Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. It basically tells us that our actions are first associated with satisfying our physiological and safety needs (food, water, security, shelter) and only later concerned with the social and personal ones, such as relationships, appreciation, education, or any creative activities.

All in all, our everyday reactions are firmly correlated to which of our needs are met or neglected.

If I’m starving and you prevent me from getting fed, my emotional response will probably be intense. If the safety of myself and my close ones is at stake, nothing else will matter to me until the potential danger passes.

On the other hand, when I’m higher up the pyramid — I’m safe, I have a place to sleep, I’m neither hungry nor thirsty — then I may be looking to address my need for affection, belonging, or appreciation instead. From now on, the health of my self-esteem starts determining my decisions, my relationships with others, or my behavioral patterns.

Furthermore, the amount of time and mental effort we spend on dealing with certain troubles is indirectly proportional to the overall degree of our satisfaction. When our basic bodily needs are in jeopardy, we are quite efficient in focusing our resources and efforts into catering to them as fast and as well as possible. When we find ourselves at the top of the pyramid of human needs, we are willing to invest a substantial amount of time into making ourselves feel miserable over fairly irrelevant issues.

We will be sad for weeks over the fact that we can’t afford a better car. We will spend hours contemplating opinions of other people. We will get perpetually “depressed” over our poor life choices.

As a rule, the more we have, the less we’re capable of appreciating the things that truly matter. The better we are, the more often we let painful external circumstances bring us to our knees.

In summary, a person who is safe and surrounded by material comfort can in theory end up experiencing the same or even more pain than a person fighting for survival.

We tend to believe that the difficulties that permeate our lives are the underlying reasons for how we feel most of the time. When something bad happens to us, we assume that we have the right to feel sad, frustrated, or angry. Or don’t we?

We do. We do have the right to feel anything we want. And it’s fantastic that as human beings we can experience a variety of emotions, since they often play the essential role of informing us that some of our important needs aren’t being fulfilled. However, certain emotions often arise as an outcome of our calculations and judgments, and these can be modified if how we feel turns out to be unfavorable.

Let’s have a look at an example:

My sense of self-worth is rather low. → Someone has insulted me. → Thought: The person is an asshole. → Emotion: Anger.

In this case, the emotion of anger can be telling us that our need for recognition has been threatened. Also, we tend to take words of other people personally when deep inside we somewhat agree with them.

The consequential emotion is clearly unpleasant but it still offers a certain message and can act as a motivator for change. For instance, we can look for ways how to improve the communication with that other person or remove them from our lives.


My sense of self-worth is rather solid. → Someone has insulted me. →

a) Thought: The person is being mean. → Emotion: Irritation.

b) Thought: The person is not important to me and their words mean very little. → Emotion: Slight momentary annoyance.

Here, the emotions are rather a product of our thoughts. It means that we can modify our judgments of certain events to improve the way we feel about them.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
~Haruki Murakami

We can’t change the whole world. We can only contribute to making it a better place, which still means a lot. We can stick to the belief that if we only aim at giving our absolute best within our lifetime, there is a purpose to our existence.

There will always be people trying to hurt us. There will always be seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Rivers of bitter tears. Betrayals. Despair. Fear. Blatant injustice. Moments of utter loneliness. Fearsome challenges to test our resolve.

And then we’ll be left with just two options:

Use the pain to become strong and wise.

Let the pain leave us weak and broken.

Even though human being tends to navigate towards pleasure and away from pain, we cannot completely remove it from our lives. On the physiological level, pain means that something is wrong with our body. It screams, “Hey, do something about it!” On the emotional level, the information broadcasted is somewhat similar, “This doesn’t feel good. You’re not getting what you need.” Or, “This is against what you believe in.”

Which brings us to the major difference between pain and suffering.

Pain can help you grow.

Suffering merely consumes your life energy.

A broken person is one who chooses suffering. When something bad happens to them, they let their mind suffer a devastating blow. They are left wounded. Their self-esteem is shattered. Instead of outgrowing the pain, they bring it back by reviving harmful memories over and over.

A broken person has survived but doesn’t live.

On the other hand, a strong person knows that their life is far too valuable to give up. They feel pain and it makes them human. Yet, unlike many others, they channel it into transforming themselves. They learn a lesson. They improve their thinking patterns. They heal themselves.

An awful life event and healing one’s mind seem incongruous at best. But a person who has made the decision to keep the fire of their spirit burning understands that there is no other way.

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