What is suffering? What is the opposite of suffering?

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. - Helen Keller


CW/TW: discussion of religion, s***ide, mental health


These are the questions I assigned myself as homework between therapy sessions this month (this blog is me doing the homework). "Can any one person not experience suffering?" I pondered during the last session. In order to answer that, it depends on how we define suffering; to know the opposite of suffering can also allow us to better pursue it.


I knew that religions would offer me a variety of perspectives on suffering. I was raised Catholic, so I started there. I found St. Paul, the patron saint of missionaries, evangelists, writers and public workers. "Paul understands that the suffering he endures serves as a way to be like Christ, as well as it being for Christ’s sake" (Pizzalato; Catholic News Agency).


Christianity's answer didn't help any more: we suffer because Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple (in a nutshell). I looked at Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Baha'i faith.


I was unsatisfied by these explanations. They provided me with reasons suffering exists according to their teachings, but not what it is, at least not beyond pain, distress, and disability (the ableism of this last one could be a whole post itself). I and others could experience the same situation and each perceive it in such unique ways that some suffer and some do not.


My answer to "what is suffering?" or "when/how do I experience suffering?" will be different from the answers of anyone reading this blog. As I process, I have also noted a distinction between what I personally consider suffering versus non-ideal/uncomfortable situations.


A pattern of life, death, and relationship/connection appeared in what I identified as suffering:

  • Suffering is uncertainty about the status of another's safety or wellbeing

  • Suffering is suicidal ideation

  • Suffering is when community is unavailable

It's helpful to know these things about myself - if it resonates with you, I invite you to explore your experience of suffering, as well as your experience of the opposite of suffering.


What is not-suffering, for me? The initial contrast was easy to identify:

Not-suffering is having certainty about another's safety or wellbeing, not-suffering is wanting to be alive, and not-suffering is being in community with others. Not suffering is:

  • Extending and receiving love, kindness, and compassion

  • Being able to be safe being one's authentic self

  • Unlearning harmful internalized beliefs replacing them with new, nourishing and life-giving beliefs

I realized that I don't need to encapsulate not-suffering with a single word or phrase. It can manifest as a number of different experiences: joy, happiness, contentedness, warmth, authenticity, and so much more.


A white, brunette person with shoulder-length hair under a pink beanie and wearing a red long-sleeve shirt and brown leggings is sitting in a forest. The ground is dark brown dirt and there is a tree over the person. There is a black and white dog laying down facing the person. The person has a green fanny pack on their waist and a small blue backpack next to them.



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