I’m not sure what I was reading when I saw the phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, but I grabbed the closest things at hand – a purple marker and a torn-out sheet of recycled drawing paper – and immediately scribbled it down. It’s been hanging on my fridge for probably 2 years now. So simple, yet so powerful! A friend saw my little sign and laughed, telling me it was not true. Ah, but she was so wrong.

Life teaches us through pain; “Life Lessons” are rarely pleasurable. Pain will come to all of us, we have absolutely no choice. Physical, mental, or emotional; it might be mild or deep, but when it comes we can’t tell it to stop. Pain causes indelible  impressions to form in our brains, in Sanskrit these are called samskara. Like a rivulet of water digging a trough in sand, mild impressions might take several times they become strong enough to change your habits, while a deep impression might cause you to change your ways immediately.

Suffering is a different animal entirely. Suffering is all about choice. We choose how we react to the pain. Now, I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not saying we can always make that choice. Emotion destroys your ability to make clear choices so of course we suffer when we’re under duress. However, we choose to make our lives hell in so many little ways, I sometimes wonder how some people have the energy to get through their day!

Here’s an example: It’s been a long day at work and you have to stop at the food store on the way home to pick something up. The parking lot is busy, and as you’re eyeballing a spot someone else zooms in to take it. You could take this as a sign – maybe you weren’t meant to park there, who knows? – and choose to let it go, but you give in to the little burst of anger and now you’re grumbling about crowded parking lots and rude drivers. You find a spot and head into the store only to find long lines. Grabbing your item, you head for the line, with a continuous rant going in your head. And it’s not ranting anything positive, especially about your line mates, the cashier, the store, or anything else that dares cross your mind. Arriving home, you are in such a funk that you’re snapping at your family and even the dog won’t come near you.

Do you see how there were choices in that story? Many opportunities to take a deep breath, accept the circumstances, and let the negative energy go. I could have written about a jerky boss, a health issue, a financial turn. All the same story with the same moral: the way you choose to deal with your pain directly relates to the amount of suffering you will face.

Choices are all around us. We may not like either option, but the options are there. Accept pain as the teacher it is – learn that lesson and you won’t have to face that particular pain again. Suffering is optional, so don’t sweat the small stuff and take a step towards more peace in your life.