Opt in, opt out

Two of the comments on the post Why does Euthyphro hurt? help to clarify my questions about the phrase, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  (I will discuss William’s comment on suffering and loss in a later post on grief.)

Terry’s point that pain is also optional gets at my problem with the word “inevitable.”  Previously I mentioned David Epstein’s article on how athletes perform through pain.  Epstein mostly focuses on the science of how we can ignore pain in situations of athletic competition, anger, war and battle.

Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to promote “mindfulness” as scientific.  The science implicit in the phrase “pain is inevitable” is the outmoded Cartesian model of pain: injury hits; nerves transmit; brain perceives. A new science has developed around pain as a dynamic, biopsychosocial neuromatrix.

Mark’s point about the latent hubris in this phrase gets at my fundamental problem with the totality of the phrase and its use.  The Unitarian minister Mike Young expands on this problem with “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

The problem with most of the formulations of it is that they seem to be saying that your suffering is your own damned fault. Suffering is NOT our fault. It is not that we choose to suffer. It is that no one has ever taught us how to choose not to. Not that we opt for it, but that we don’t opt not. There is a way not to suffer. Most of us don’t know it. Or, knowing it, don’t believe it’s possible for us.

As a student of the Buddha’s teachings, I have fundamental questions about the implication that this phrase captures the Four Noble Truths.  That the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path show us how we can open up our suffering does not mean that we opted in to suffer.

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