Life is suffering, pain is optional

That’s a pretty big title.  It’s actually an old Buddhist saying that has always resonated with me. It’s akin to when Lincoln said he believed that “most people are about as happy as they want to be.”  The gist is the same. My mom, who I often quote because of her kitchen table wisdom, used to say that we would never really properly appreciate a warm sunny day without the cold winter. Granted it never stopped her from complaining about the cold, but she was  right. So this time I wanted to share some thoughts on just how painful our lives are, or how painful we make them.

Life is like a Plinko game

Life is like a Plinko game

Much of our struggle comes from believing that our lives are supposed to be a certain way and we feel that they are not.  We often resent that “it’s not going our way” or that someone only gave us a glass half full. (Do I really need to expound on that?)  The fact of the matter is that life is like a game of Plinko on the Price is Right. A series of pegs that bounce our dropped chip in random directions making the directing of the chip nearly impossible. The best that you can hope for is that you make it into the slot that wins you the prize, but there is no way to steer it in. As we go through life our course is determined by a series of reactions to the things that happen to us. Sometimes we get better aligned with the prize slot and sometimes we don’t. However, unlike Plinko, we do have some control over our reactions. We can control our direction a little bit but sometimes we direct ourselves one way and “bang” there is another Plinko Pin. That is why the Buddhists define life as suffering: every Plinko Pin is something we have to deal with and that bouncing around can feel like a real struggle.

We invite the pain when we start to believe that somehow the pins are conspiring against us. We see that other people’s Plinko chips are heading right to the prize slot, and  others might already have won, but we just seem to be bouncing around. I’m sure that’s painful. But first understand the beauty of the Plinko/Life analogy. Every bounce is a opportunity to learn and experience your life. It’s a chance to maybe even experience the lousy weather referred to in  my Mom’s quote before we get to the Spring. Is it really that bad?  “Sometimes things have to go wrong before they can go right.  Sometimes you have to feel a little broken to realize you’ll never truly be shattered.”*  When you see it all as a learning experience, it’s not so bad.  Look around, if it was really that bad, you wouldn’t still be breathing.  If your breathing you must still have more to do, so how bad can that be?
People often believe that to be strong is to feel no pain but realistically we all feel it. It’s the strong ones who acknowledge it, learn from it, adjust and eventually  surpass it: then they hit another Plinko Pin because it never ends.  “Success”  is having the strength and courage to cry a little, pick yourself up and then get back into the Plinko game, it’s not about avoiding pain it’s about working with it.
The resentment of others because they seemingly have less pain is simply not valid. One never knows what goes on behind closed doors.  Everyone is suffering, that’s what life is, but some just hide the pain better than others. You don’t think Bill Gates or Justin Beiber have pain? They pay managers and publicists millions to create a veil that never shows us that they are, in fact, human.  That is why when that veil is lifted, for whatever reason, it is so “newsworthy”.  When we get to see that they are human we all  realize that they are not better or worse than us. It makes us feel better for some schadenfreudian reason (think Tiger Woods) but that’s another topic.
When I was a college athlete I had chronic ankle pain. When I saw the team of doctors at the student health services they put me on crutches every time, (That’s true but also a joke: in school we said that the student services would put you on crutches even because of a headache, I think they got a commission on crutch rental, but anyhoo…) and they told me I needed reconstructive surgery on both ankles. I couldn’t afford it, and being without health insurance I needed an alternative. The team worked with a sports psychologist that advised me when it came to physical pain, I should see it as an alarm in a building I live in. The alarm goes off to tell us that something is wrong, and once we acknowledge that and are taking steps to rectify it we should turn the alarm off. It all made sense and I tried very hard to silence my alarm and deal with the therapy and stretching that I needed to do to get by as an alternative to a surgical rebuild on that part of the building. ** I think that the same principle applies to our daily struggles. Our pain truly is an option that we can let continue to sound or deal with it constructively. We know that life will give us lemons, or stormy days, or Plinko bounces or whatever: choose your own analogy, but we truly can be just about as happy as we want to be.

* Quoted from Mark and Angel Hack Life

** After college I never had the surgery. I have since taken up running as my sport of choice and occasionally still have moderate ankle pain. But it hasn’t effected my ability to be active. I know I have concerns with my ankles and I take precautions so I seldom hear that particular alarm. 

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