Suffering and pain are not the same. Pain is a signal. It is an action of our nervous system that makes us aware of problems. Suffering is the pain plus our negative emotional response to it. When we reject the pain, when we can’t accept it, we get suffering.
Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. is a psychologist who helps people learn to manage their painful emotions more effectively. She teaches that suffering is pain without acceptance, and the work of getting through suffering is “Radical Acceptance.” That is complete and total acceptance of reality. She defines reality simply as “what is.” Further, she observes that everything has a cause.
When we accept that everything has a cause we no longer wonder “Why me?” We no longer live with the phrase, “This shouldn’t be.” When we enact radical acceptance, we can remove the suffering from pain. If we get ill, we can spend a lot of energy crying about it, rejecting the reality that we are ill, wishing that it weren’t so and railing against God for allowing this catastrophe. Or we can accept that the illness has a cause. Perhaps we have a genetic predisposition to it, or we smoke, or we eat foods that contribute to the condition, or we have a lot of stress, or we live in a world that exposes us to unhealthful conditions. The illness didn’t befall us because life is unfair or because God is angry with us. Something real happened and certain conditions existed that enabled it to happen.
That is not to say that the illness or any other loss or disappointment is desirable, or that we shouldn’t do what we can to get better, but we are not going to get better by staying in our denial of reality and holding ourselves in our destructive emotions. We overcome suffering by accepting reality and finding ways to make the best of it.
I often say that suffering is pain plus non-acceptance. But I like the definition above: suffering is pain plus our negative response to it. We can't always do anything about the pain but we can always do something about our response.