I have a confession to make. And it’s not that I’ve actually spent any time behind bars, but rather that I’ve been completely addicted to Orange is the New Black for the past month.
I don’t typically watch a lot of TV and in fact, months can go by without even turning one on. However, I became an absolute fiend with this particular series.
Watching a handful of episodes every few days, I quickly powered through all four seasons in record time. I’ve been utterly enthralled by the complexity of the characters, the depravity that accompanies “doing time,” and the ways in which these women navigate their captivity and their relationships with each other. It’s been totally fascinating, frustrating, funny, endearing, and disturbing all at once.
This show is seriously a goldmine of intellectual adventure if you’re into psychologically wrestling around with the messier parts of life, which I’ll admit I can be prone to do from time to time. But over the past few days, there’s been one particular scene that’s been incessantly rolling around in my head begging for some attention and reflection.
Not wanting to be a show-spoiler, I won’t offer up much context, but I think the sentiment stands pretty profoundly on its own. However, for you other avid OITNB watchers, I’m referring to the moment when Pennsatucky (a.k.a Dogget) poses the following to Big Boo:
“Do you know the difference between pain and suffering?
Pain is always there, but suffering is a choice.”
And so while this isn’t exactly a new idea or novel concept, it hit me hard in the moment.
There’s been a great deal of loss, upset, and strife in the lives of many of the people I love lately and I’ve been feeling it deeply. As I took in these words, the faces of clients, friends, and other dear ones in recent turmoil were immediately brought to mind and I felt called to explore it a little more fully.
PAIN VS. SUFFERING
In the first place, it’s just not logical to believe that anyone would choose to suffer. Really, why would anyone actively choose to suffer? They very simply don’t.
So the real issue is more about how we can intentionally ease or end suffering as quickly as possible. More aptly, how do we NOT suffer? And then ultimately the question becomes: what’s the alternative to suffering?
Importantly though, I needed to firmly wrap my head around the difference between pain and suffering.
As I see it, pain is the involuntary, immediate, and often very visceral response to hurt, humiliation, and heartbreak; it entails the gut-wrenching, hand-clenching, and mind-bending reactions that our bodies and brains serve up in reaction to discomfort, distress, or trauma.
Suffering, on the other hand, is the conscious, yet not necessarily deliberate, continuation of that experience. It’s that dangerous dwelling place of resentment, regret, helplessness, anxiety, and anger. And it’s entirely destructive to the angels of our true and better natures.
All too often, suffering becomes the birthplace of irrationality, poor judgment, and even obsession, which can leave heaps of collateral damage in its wake.
But as Elie Wiesel so poignantly demonstrated to the world in transcending his reality of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, suffering is essentially a mindset or a perspective. And mindsets and perspectives can be shifted with determined awareness and decisive attention. In his words, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
So while this may be hard for some of us to swallow, suffering is very much a condition that we can opt out of, or at the very least, manage.
Don’t get me wrong - I DO NOT believe that “everything happens for a reason.” I tend to prickle a little when this cliché catchall is flippantly delivered as a universal explanation for the trials and tough times in our lives and the world. And truth be told, I’m not really a big fan of “mind over matter” for some of the same reasons.
However, I DO believe that many difficult situations - ranging from minor discomfort to major devastation - don’t happen to us, they happen for us.
But only if you choose to see it that way. And you CAN choose to see it that way.
THE POWER TO CHOOSE
Every single day we encounter people, problems and struggles, running the gamut from petty to pretty painful, that create the optimal conditions for suffering:
The hard drive that crashes just before a major presentation. The blog post that bombs. The flight that gets cancelled at the very last minute.
The shitty co-worker. The deadbeat dad. The unethical boss. The other woman.
That dreaded call from the doctor. The end of a friendship. The loss of a loved one.
But whether it’s a temporary inconvenience, a serious setback or a soul-shocking betrayal, it’s wholly within our power to evolve negative situations into opportunities for growth, grace, or greater alignment. And far from being a woo-woo suggestion, this is a particularly empowered and enlightened approach to living.
In order to adopt this way of being, we need to lean fully into the knowing that there are times when we have little control over what happens to us, but we ALWAYS have control over our response and reactions – both internally and outwardly. For instance:
In the face of a nasty separation, we can choose NOT to engage in drawn-out court battles that ravage our children’s innocence and wellbeing.
Rather than sending out knee-jerk emails and regrettable text messages when we feel slighted, we can choose NOT to hit send in the heat of the moment.
When our work falls flat or a project isn’t well received, we can chose NOT to descend into damaging self-talk, including internal dialogue about our failure and inadequacy.
Because here’s the thing: the very things that Bring us to our Knees or nearly break us Into Pieces can often be the very same things that make us more complete and whole.
From my own experience, had it not been for that one particularly crappy colleague who attempted to make my days a living hellish nightmare, it would’ve taken me a lot longer to discover and step into my life’s work. That woman taught me that I needed to fully embody feminine leadership and be a stand for the success of all women.
When my grandfather passed last year, it was absolutely devastating to me. However, his death also served to exponentially amplify my gratitude for the three other grandparents who still walk through the world with me. As a result, they’ve become even more beloved; every opportunity I have to spend with them is now even richer and never taken for granted.
And had I not kissed a whole lot of frogs on my path, I wouldn’t have been so quick to know when I finally stumbled upon a prince. Every bad relationship was an opportunity to grow into the person I needed to become in order to build and sustain a healthy, loving, and passionate partnership.
Aggravation, adversity, and agony can be incredibly powerful teachers - but only if we’re willing to show up for the lessons that live in the disappointment, despair, and other darker places.
As Mark Nepo says, “The quiet teachers are everywhere. Yet in our pride and confusion, in our self-centeredness and fear, we often miss the teachers and feel burdened and alone.”
THE ALTERNTIVE TO SUFFERING
While I’m attempting to neatly wrap all of this up into one tidy article, believe me that these were all hard-earned realizations and not overnight revelations.
Yet, time and again, I've come to learn that the most difficult lessons are often accompanied by even bigger blessings. As Weisel reminds us, “There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.”
And all of this has led me to a powerful practice that has served me very well over the last few years. Whenever I’m confronted with challenging circumstances or people, I immediately ask two questions before taking any action: "What can I learn from this?" and "What can I earn from this?"
Said differently, “What is this situation trying to teach me?” and “Where can I find reasons to be grateful?”
Sometimes the insights are instantaneous. Other times it can take years to download the deeper understanding. The point is that there’s an intentional reaction and solid strategy planned in advance for anything life wants to throw in my general direction.
More than that though, I think it’s about massively shifting our universal response overall. In a previous post, I wrote that generosity is the best response to absolutely everything. However, with further reflection, I’ve come to understand that our ability to be generous resides in our capacity for compassion – towards ourselves and towards others.
Compassion, then, is truly the only alternative to suffering.
As I wrote in a recent Instagram post:
In times of grief, chaos, and uncertainty, we tend to turn inward and close our hearts off to the world. We absorb ourselves in our own stories of pain and struggle, composing fearful and damaging narratives that are dictated solely from our fragile egos. Without intending to, we make ourselves preeminently important and forget that we are all in this together.
This business of humanness can be really messy, and when we're in the muck of it all, our inclination is to retreat rather than reach out. And while it's important to ask for help and support, it's even more essential that you find a way to extend yourself on a soul level in the midst of trauma, turmoil, or even just a tough day. Sending loving kindness to the world in your darkest hours is honestly almost always the surest path to peace, healing and happiness.
As the Dalai Lama has said, "Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”
A LITTLE MORE PRISON WISDOM
I spent many years preferring to be right over being happy. There were times when seething, stewing, or saving face entirely trumped my need for peace, sanity, and serenity. And I too have sent my fair share of emails and text messages that I desperately wish I could take back. Because in the wise words of good old Dogget from Orange is the New Black, “Toast can never be bread again.”
Instead of suffering, try to dig deep for the lessons and even deeper for the blessings. And though it might sometimes feel like suffering in the moment, practice compassion even when it hurts like hell.