What is chosen suffering?
My recent cancer journey coincided with reading a book called Chosen Suffering. It was a book that one of my church pastors quoted from and I was intrigued. It was been a timely read in the midst of what I was going through. The book is written as a leadership book by Tom Ryan who is a college wrestling coach. He talks about chosen suffering as in the suffering an athlete chooses in order to become elite. Unchosen suffering enters his life with the sudden, unexpected death of one of his young children.
What about unchosen suffering?
Reading the book helped me reframe what I was going through. The cancer diagnosis itself is unchosen suffering. I did not choose it or ask for it. But I have choices following that diagnosis. And that has given me a new mindset. My surgeon, oncologist, and radiologist recommend treatments based on their knowledge and I had the option of choosing to take those actions or pursuing other treatments. When I have side effects from treatments, I can dwell on the suffering that I’m currently feeling, or I can remember that I chose this option. I can spend my mental energy on getting through the challenges in the best way possible. Or I can be the best I can be with the circumstances that were outside my control. We can’t control other people or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control our responses to those things.
“Pain is the feeling. Suffering is the effect the pain inflicts. If one can endure pain, one can live without suffering. If one can withstand pain, one can withstand anything. If one can learn to control pain, one can learn to control oneself. ”
― James Frey, My Friend Leonard
― James Frey, My Friend Leonard
The second arrow
I have a choice in how I walk through unchosen suffering. Choosing to add more suffering on top of that is never going to be the best option. There is a Buddhist parable about this. Imagine walking through a forest and getting hit by an arrow. There is pain and probably fear as a result of getting struck by an arrow. The second arrow refers to your emotional reaction to getting hit by that first arrow.
When I finished my 12 weeks of chemotherapy I was looking forward to 30 days of recovery before having to start radiation. I was looking forward to rebuilding my stamina. I couldn’t wait for food to taste good again. Two weeks into this recovery period I got COVID. I was sick, exhausted, and lost my sense of taste and smell. Unchosen suffering. The first arrow.
And then I added on the second arrow. I got angry, disappointed, and frustrated. I wallowed in, “It’s not fair.” I whined and complained. Thankfully, I didn’t stay in that emotional funk for too long. But I didn’t have to add on all that extra uncessesary chosen suffering. I ultimately focused on the things that I was grateful for, despite my circumstances as in one of my favorite Bible verses:
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned[e] and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.Phillipians 4:8-9