By Santara Gonzales
Two weeks ago I did not think that I would be able to write this article. I was experiencing intense pain in my left arm which prevented me from performing the simplest tasks.
Redirecting Our Thoughts To What We Can Control
Desperately wanting to alleviate my distress, I turned to the Stoics and found a roadmap to relieve my suffering. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus urges us (Discourses Book I) to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not. We can suffer or we can choose to do everything in our control to relieve our suffering. This not only includes remedying the physical pain, but also changing our thinking, which reflects our approach to what ails us.
No one likes to feel pain. It does not feel good and may keep us from doing things we enjoy. When experiencing pain, we may even be prone to catastrophize it. We bemoan it; wish it did not happen to us, and focus on how much we physically hurt. We put our pain under a microscope, focusing on nothing else, and in doing so, we actually amplify our distress. Redirecting our thinking to what we can control, our thoughts and attitudes towards pain, will put us on a path of relief.
Our Relationship With Pain
The Stoics provide rich guidance on dealing with pain and suffering. They teach us to change our relationship with pain; how we think about it and approach it. In changing our attitude towards pain, we may find that what we viewed as unbearable, actually becomes bearable. Seneca writes that“everything hangs on one’s thinking”. When suffering pain, he writes to his friend Lucilius,
“another thing which will help is to turn your mind to other thoughts and that way get away from your suffering.” Following Seneca, we may think about things we do well or what makes us happy. When faced with illness, pain can be a trivial thing if we do not add to it with negative thoughts. In the same letter, Seneca writes “comforting thoughts contribute to a person’s cure; anything which raises his spirits benefits him physically as well”. – Seneca, Moral Letters, 78.
Pain Can Be The Source Of Growth And Transformation
Stoicism teaches us that pain can also be the source of growth and transformation. We can ask ourselves whether there is a lesson in our pain or if there is something positive in what we are experiencing. Will our circumstances make us stronger or even provide an opportunity to do something differently? If you break the right arm, then this can be an opportunity to begin writing with your left hand. The runner who can no longer sprint due to pain, can still train other runners.
When bedridden, we can learn a new language. Reframing our thinking, and focusing on what we can still do and control, will help us brave our suffering. When asked what he will make of illness, Epictetus, in Discourses, Book III, Section 20, responds that he “will expose its true nature by outdoing myself in calmness and serenity”, and that he will turn everything thrown at him into a blessing.
Another Stoic approach to pain is asking ourselves if we are capable of enduring worse, or whether we have endured more in the past. Perhaps we even know someone who has endured more suffering than we have, and they thrived despite the pain. Putting our pain into perspective and viewing it dispassionately and objectively allows us to recognize that pain ebbs and flows in intensity, and may eventually be gone all together. Seneca reminds us in that letter that when the pain and suffering have subsided, we can then find pleasure “in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant”. Furthermore, Epictetus, in Enchiridion (10), reassures us that we have the resources to cope with any challenge, and that when “faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance”.
Endure And Grow
Pain is unavoidable, and we will surely experience it during our lifetime. During those times, when we feel our body gripped by pain, we must remember that our attitude towards suffering is within our control. We can choose to either intensify our pain by focusing on how badly we feel, or we can follow the teachings of the Stoics, and accept our predicament, meet it with dignity and courage, knowing that we can endure and grow in spite of it.