Pain vs. Suffering: A Necessary Distinction for Writers

Every writer, at some point or another, writes about pain and suffering. The truth is, due to the universal human experience of both, these are topics that deeply touch the reader and as such are richly relatable, thus making for compelling writing. The problem arises, however, when the writer fails to understand the fundamental difference between the two. In not understanding that these are two unique and very individual experiences, we often speak of one when we clearly intend to address the other.

To that end, please allow me to attempt to make that distinction now, as clearly as I am able. I hope in doing so that you will be able to more sharply hone both the intent, and the alliterations, you might be striving for in your next piece.

Pain, while it serves as a somatic sensation of acute discomfort to warn us that something is wrong and threatening to our health or survival, is a feeling people try to avoid. As well they should. We should strive to avoid hurt, thus avoiding pain, at all costs. Why would we embrace something that makes us miserable? It can, and does, have an emotional component, but only as a byproduct of the actual physical pain. When we write about pain, we should be speaking to the physical experience, and for the most part, it should be in noun form (with the exception of when we or others are the root cause of that physical discomfort, in which case it would be presented as an adjective.)

Suffering, on the other hand, speaks more to the mental experience of pain or affliction. It is a cerebral process that, when experienced, may feel “painful”, but is in reality growth producing. When we write about suffering, our focus should primarily be on the psychological or spiritual lessons associated with a painful event. It should, in healthy terms, present itself as a necessary evil to be embraced, as in acceptance comes growth. In feeling, misery, or state of mind, it is presented as a noun. Experientially, or as a state of being, it serves as an adjective. In making this distinction, the writer lends to the reader the correct emotional attachment and understanding to what is being discussed.

Practice writing a couple of verses where you clearly make the distinction between the two and see if you don’t agree.

Here is a short story that I heard year’s ago that I feel makes the distinction between pain and suffering very clear:.

“A young boy was caught in a home fire and burned very badly. His mother was lost in the fire, and his father, at the time, was stationed in the military in Iraq. As soon as the father learned of the tragedy, he was rushed home to be with his son. He sat beside his son for day after day, for weeks, as the child went through extensive and painful reconstructive surgery to repair his damaged skin. The child was experiencing both pain and suffering: pain from the burns and the bouts of surgery; suffering from the loss of his mother. The father, too, although not in physical pain, was also deeply suffering watching his child in so much pain. The child wanted the pain to go away, but he embraced his suffering because it made him feel connected to the mother he lost. This suffering, though painful, caused him to grow and to heal more quickly. Unfortunately, the father could not make the distinction. He felt he was in too much pain, and when he was not by his son’s side, he would go home and drink to ease the discomfort. In essence, in confusing the two, he was pushing his suffering away, and he never fully recovered from the events.”

Submitted by DLMcHale

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