My favorite modern author is the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s writing is not light, or for everyone. He employs alternate realities and vivid descriptions of unpleasant events (e.g. murders), and his characters are often loners, separated from society either by their own devices or by circumstances. To me, however, his writing is engaging and thought-provoking, and he is a superb story teller. I even ventured to plow through one of his latest works—Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage in the original Japanese before it was released in English, and found it easier to read than I expected (it was also fairly short).
Murakami mostly writes fiction—both novels and short stories—but occasionally has forayed into non-fiction. An avid long distance runner and triathlete, he wrote a book called What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, where he describes his interest and mental and physical conditioning for long distance events, as well as the intersection with his highly disciplined writing schedule. Early in this book, he leads off a section with the phrase “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
This phrase is highly appropriate to long distance running, but has applicability to other areas of life. When I used to run half marathons, the last couple of miles were both mentally and physically tough. When your calves are burning and you are experiencing fatigue, it’s hard to keep going. But some of the pain is mental as well—this is what Murakami means by suffering–and exacerbates the physical pain. Repeating this phase in my head kept me focused—and also kept me going to the end.
Unfortunately, Murakami’s fictional characters often do suffer—from regret, from remorse, from loneliness and isolation, and from the prison of their own thoughts. Tsukuru Tazaki, for example, seems permanently scarred from an incident that occurred during his college years, when his group of close friends (all with names incorporating colors, which his does not, forming the basis of the book’s title), inexplicably stopped talking to him. The plot of the novel is about his journey of discovery, many years after the fact, about what transpired to cause this sudden and total shutdown of communication from his close friends.
As I have faced serious illness after a lifetime of excellent health, I have often thought of this phrase. When I took Vipassana meditation several years ago, there were a number of participants who had chronic pain. After several days when we could all talk again, some of them related how the practice had actually lessened their physical sensation. When we pile on regret, worry, anxiety, frustration, anger (“why me?”), and other emotions to either physical pain or unfortunate circumstances, it seems that the effect is simply to magnify discomfort.
Managing this is, of course, a lot easier said than done. Worry and anxiety (especially before CT scans) is a natural part of dealing with a disease like metastatic breast cancer. Although like most people I am not 100% successful, meditation as well as trying to find some pleasure in every day helps me avoid adding mental suffering to the pain (which for me, includes the remorse of no longer being able to run). The pleasures can actually be quite small to achieve this effect: the cosmo seeds popping up along the driveway, a walk in the woods, a friend’s company, the arrival of the LL Bean catalog in the mail, the view of the sunset from our bedroom window, discovering an old picture from many years ago, gratitude at the things I still have and can do. It takes a conscious effort to not only find but to focus on and appreciate these small blessings, and to live the mantra, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” But it is worth it.