Is Suffering Optional?

“Life is painful, suffering is optional.”

If you’re a regular on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably seen the quote above attributed to the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama, or Gandhi, or Confucius, or a slew of other spiritual leaders. While it certainly follows Buddha’s principals, and the Buddha likely said something similar, most sayings on the internet that are attributed to the Buddha are inaccurate. They just sound like something the Buddha may have said. Many credit the saying to well-respected meditation teacher and psychotherapist, Sylvia Boorstein, however, my understanding is that it is unknown who originally said it

So, suffering is optional, huh? I say bullshit!

As a Buddhist, that does not come easy for me to say. It makes me want to slap my hand and say “Bad Buddhist! Bad Buddhist!” While suffering is mentioned in nearly all religions, suffering (or the cessation of) is the very basis of Buddhism.

What is suffering? According to, one definition of the verb “suffer” is “to undergo, be subjected to, or endure (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant).” Based on this definition I suffer, and so does everyone I know at one time or another.

Who suffers? Children bloated and nearing death from starvation suffer; Parents watching their children beheaded by terrorists suffer; People forced to endure human trafficking suffer. All of these are examples of people who suffer more than most of us can imagine and having a different outlook on life is not going to change that.

Of course I’ve given extreme examples of suffering, but let’s look at the more everyday garden variety suffering that those of us who have the luxury of using computers may endure. I have friends who suffer from the intense pain of fibromyalgia. I held a friends hand as he suffered through his last days of illness caused by AIDS. And me? I have had to endure the deep, dark debilitating days of depression. Is my depression optional? Sure it is. I like to suffer. Who doesn’t? Nothing makes me happier than living in despair.

All this may sound contradictory to posts I made earlier this year regarding acceptance and balance in life. In a small way, it probably is. The reality, however, is that I haven’t changed it that much. I still practice Buddhism and I still believe it is the best way to reduce ones suffering. I still believe attaining Enlightenment is the way to release oneself of all suffering. However, how many of us have attained Enlightenment?

If you wonder what brought this all this on, it’s Twitter. I see a lot of people there baring their souls, posting about their mental disabilities and the pain (and suffering) they live with. Then what do I see? Someone posts, “Life is painful, suffering is optional.” What a slap in the face. A fine way to negate someone’s feelings. To me it’s just a backhanded way of saying, “Get over it.” It makes me sad and it makes me angry. I ask you to imagine yourself in deep pain and read through the following list:

“You can take a frown and turn it upside down.”

“When one door closes another one opens.”

“Without the clouds we would not appreciate the sun.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Rather trite aren’t they? Can you imagine any of them actually making you feel better when you are going through a period of suffering? Me either. When someone is hurting, they need comfort and kindness not meaningless platitudes. Please remember that if you ever feel the urge to tell someone their suffering is optional.

27 comments on Is Suffering Optional?

  1. I hate those and similar platitudes, particularly “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (I may write about this later) and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” My favorite sayings are “Pain brings change. Change brings pain. Lather, rinse, repeat” and “Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something..” (That last one is from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.)

    1. I can’t believe I forgot “God doesn’t give us…” and “What doesn’t kill you…” Those are amongst the worst. I should have asked for everyone to list the ones they hate.

      1. i actually wrote a post that was the exact opposite of all the things NOT to say to a depressed person, but rather, what you can say and do to help them even a little bit like offering to go grocery shopping for them. I was tired of the lists of things NOT to say because we (the mentally interesting) already know what they are.

        1. I wrote a similar post not long ago. A reader requested it. I’ll find the link and post it. The “suffering is optional” just set me off.

  2. In my school (Nichiren) Buddhism, the Daishonin says “Life is suffering.” It isn’t just painful and difficult; it is suffering. But, and this is a point I have a really hard time explaining, without suffering, there would be no impetus to change (of course the extreme examples you gave in your post would probably need life long therapy to “get over”). Suffering is not an option, it is part of life, and if used in the right way can be turned into benefit or as we call it “turning poison into medicine.” There is always going to be suffering in life, and it is going to hurt, but if you look at it in just the right light, you will realize that by getting through that particular bout of suffering you have overcome something difficult, and that leads to a more indomitable personal strength.

    I know none of this makes sense. Like I said, this is a concept I have a hard time explaining.It is not the old “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Of course he/she/it does, or I wouldn’t have so many suicide attempts under my belt. Buddhism, at least the school I practice in, believes suffering and pain are necessary to human spiritual growth. This certainly doesn’t make it any more palatable, and I struggle through every day, but I know in my heart, that it can and will get better. I just have to wait for the next mood state 🙂

    1. You make perfect sense and I don’t disagree entirely. I just think when someone is in pain they don’t need platitudes. Offer advice when their more stable. Just love them when they are in pain.

      1. I agree…..they do not need to be told that this will all be over soon, or everyone gets this way sometimes. No, they don’t. Most depression in most people is situational, and will abate with time. This is chemical, and you can wake up this way having been fine the day before.

        Right now, I am fighting to keep my disability, and I am trying to explain to the damn government that Bipolar has totally rearranged my life, not to mention the anxiety disorders that seem to go with it. How do you explain how Bipolar affects you in two lines? I am not happy right now. I have no idea if I can work or not. This is Bipolar depression; a sudden but noticeable shift in mood….no platitudes necessary 😉

        1. Find a psychiatrist and/or psychologist who is specifically good at working with Social Security and Medicare. My psychologist is one who specializes in that so some people hire him just for that purpose. What he does is submit the information and provides all info required during an appeal all at once. When he was done I was not initially denied as most people are, and they actually expedited the process for me. Best of luck. I know it’s scary and a pain in the ass.

            1. My attorney recommended appealing if the ruling goes against you. Most psychiatric claims are refused at least twice. You have to hang in there. FYI, he said it’s a crapshoot whether you get a sympathetic judge. I don’t know your age, but he also said they’re more likely to rule in favor if you’re 55 or older, or about to turn 55; or to refile if you’re still disabled then. I stopped pursuing my claim only because he said that when the judge heard how much I make per hour at the freelance job that I can seldom work more than 40 hours/mo. at, his head would explode. These are my experiences, YMMV.

              1. Well, I do not work at all (not even freelance). I am 43, and will probably be 44 by the time this thing gets done. So, I am nearing but not really close to middle age. I still have about 20 years before full retirement age.

                I will definitely be appealing if they deny me. I used to work in financial services and I just don’t have the patience or the tolerance for people yelling at me because their check is wrong because they can’t use a time clock. That, and I just can’t take the stress any more. If I could find a decent job working with a computer and a boss that trusts my abilities enough to leave me alone, I’d be doing great. I broke it down to hourly wage from an annual salary of 2080 hours, and what the SSA considers substantial gainful activity comes to $6.38 per hour. That’s not even minimum wage, but it is poverty level.

                We’ll see what happens. If I have to go back to work, I hope I don’t have a depressive episode. That’s what cost me my last three jobs. An inability to go to work, and crying fits when I could go.

  3. One last thing: I am working on enlightenment, and one day I will be able to see the truth behind all phenomena. Right now, I have glimpses. Length of practice has nothing to do with enlightenment, the ability to see truth in all things does. That actually happens everyday in small doses.

  4. Buddhism, or any religion, shoudl be there to help people cope with the pain in their lives, not to blame them for their suffering. I am not a Buddhist, but your point makes perfect sense to me. Of course it is important to accept the pain we are dealt, and of course we should attempt to live as good lives as possible, but in any religion, most people will not become like the one who founded the religion (be it Jesus or the Buddha or whoever). We should attempt to become as close to our teachers as possible, but guilt-tripping others for not reachign enlightenment, or not being Christlike enough, or whatever, is senseless.

    1. Good points Astrid. I don’t think the intent is to shame, but it sure can come across that way.

  5. Wanna know something I LOVE about you, Bradley? You want(ed) to be a Chaplain, right? I come from a very conflicted place with all things religion (That would include Buddhism.) But you aren’t the typical seminarian. You’re very real and tell it like it is. I call BS on suffering being a choice, too. When I grew up (in religion) and married into it, I was taught that suffering was brought by God–to teach us lessons. And doesn’t that just make you want to love God with all your heart??? So H-E- double hockey stix NO, don’t tell people who are suffering they have a choice. Rather, show them that suffering brings out the goodness in others who want to help and support. (Sorry so long-winded.)

    1. Oh my goodness, Mandy, you weren’t long winded at all. Thank you for the very sweet compliments. You know what? I’m conflicted when it comes to religions too – including Buddhism as well. LOL. To think of God as a being who inflicts suffering upon us to teach lessons or to test us is truly very sad.

      I agree that I’m not your typical seminarian. Not only am I Buddhist, I’m a Unitarian Universalist (UU) as well. Here’s a couple of links you may find interesting. The first is about why I’m a UU and what a UU is:

      This second link is a sermon I did on mental health that I did while our minister was on vacation:

      If you get a chance to read them, let me know, I’d love to hear your feedback.

      1. Thanks, Bradley. I will look at those links, thanks! The UU was my last venture. I thought it was much more sane, lol. I’ll get back to you.

      2. Not one to procrastinate am I? 🙂 Those were wonderful posts, Bradley. Thank you for refreshing me on the principles of UU–I’d forgotten what had drawn me there in the first place. And the sermon is something everyone should hear. Thanks! ♥

  6. I read the article and I agree too, Bradley, at least in mind. So many people brush off suffering like it’s nothing but those very same people have a different opinion if they endured it. A part of me believes suffering is optional but I can’t seem to make that one of my core beliefs. I suffer from PTSD. I choked when I was around 7 or 8 and wasn’t prepared to hold my breath for over 2 minutes before my Aunt saved my life. My fears stem from that incident and I don’t know what to do to master it. Free-diving maybe? I don’t know. Counseling hasn’t helped all that much either. I don’t know what to do.

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