STEVEN KALAS: Pain, suffering part of the process of experiencing life

This is an open dialogue with a man I have never met, but would like to meet. A reader introduced me to his website. He is Robert Masters, a psychotherapist in Canada. In the words of the late singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg, I decided Masters and I are "twin sons of different mothers." He’s, like, my Human Matters counterpart north of the border.

Reading Masters made me think, which is always fun for me. It made me want to sit down and dialogue, reminding me of my days in graduate school when I sat at the feet of great teachers and writers, listening, thinking critically, responding sometimes in, "Oh, wow, that’s true," and other times wanting to fuss and counter the argument with my own.

This is the way I play. Some people play by getting a boat and going to the lake. I sit down with philosophers – think, banter and think some more. OK, I sometimes go to the lake, too, but after writing that last sentence I’ll likely get fewer invitations.

Masters has written an essay on pain and suffering. He sees a marked distinction in the two phenomena:

"Though pain and suffering are often thought of as being much the same, they differ greatly from each other. Pain is fundamentally just unpleasant sensation. Suffering, on the other hand, is something we are doing with our pain."

Thus far, I agree.

Masters says that pain is an inescapable part of life, but that suffering is "far less necessary than we might think." Hmm. Yes, pain is inescapable. But he postulates suffering in a new way for me – as perjorative. I don’t think about suffering as necessary versus unnecessary. I think about suffering as something we can do faithfully (consciously) or not so faithfully (unconsciously). But I think human beings suffer. Nobody comes to my office who isn’t suffering.

Masters continues: "When we cannot sufficiently distract or distance ourselves from our pain, we generally turn it into suffering. How? By overdramatizing our pain. We make an unpleasantly gripping story out of it, a tale in which our hurt ‘I’ all but automatically assumes the throne of self. I hurt, therefore I am – this is suffering’s core credo. In so doing, we are simply identifying with our pain, overpersonalizing it."

Now I struggle. I’m uneasy with the admonition, "Don’t personalize this." I think of movies and novels wherein Mafioso hit men say, "This isn’t personal, it’s only business," just before they shoot your father. If your mate cheats on you, and then implores, "This wasn’t about you. … You’re a good mate. … This was all about me and my midlife crisis," it’s unlikely you’ll say, "Good! That clears it up for me. I feel better." If you are 6 years old, and your father’s physical abuse makes you void your bladder in terror, I think you might take it personally. If your therapist insists, "That was about your father … not about you," I would technically agree. But I’d smile and admire you if you had the gumption to fire back, "That may well be, but it happened to me!"

I’m saying I wonder if people who tell me not to personalize the pain of egregious injustice or tragedy aren’t sometimes doing so revealing their own unwillingness to face suffering as suffering. I’m suspicious of metaphysical escape hatches from the work of being human.

Masters is right to say that human beings "make stories" out of pain. And not just pain – human beings make stories out of the whole of our life experience. For example, no one merely and objectively falls in love. Listen to thriving couples! They will tell you the story of falling in love. It’s very personal. It is dramatized. I call it "the narrative." Human beings are distinct from all other life forms in this way. We don’t merely have an experience – pleasant or unpleasant. We inevitably embrace our experience in a story. The story of our lives. By way of story, meaning emerges. And without meaning, pain is just pain. That’s unbearable.

Masters: "The degree to which we turn our pain into suffering is the degree to which we obstruct our own healing."

Really? I would say, rather, the relative quality (usefulness) of our suffering story will tell the difference between healing or unwellness. Some suffering stories (e.g., "God punished me with my child’s death because I deserve to be punished") are ghastly, mean and obstruct wellness. As a counselor, I never say, "Stop telling stories about your pain." But I often say, "I wonder if there’s a better story."

So, I’m fascinated. Masters says that until we can face pain absent a story of suffering, we can’t get well. I would say that the only way to heal pain is to find a useful story that allows us to do the holy work of suffering.

Now, maybe this is much ado about nothing. Maybe I’ve misunderstood him. Maybe all I’ve done is stumble over semantics. Maybe Masters and I are touching the same elephant from different ends. Or maybe he’s just more spiritually advanced and well-differentiated than I am. (I’m not being ironic; there are lots of people more advanced and psychologically mature than me.)

And maybe you’re glad you didn’t invite me on your boat at the lake. Maybe Robert Masters has a boat. If he invites me, I’m bringing a bottle of single-barrel bourbon.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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