Pain and Suffering

June 29th, 2009

President's Welcome

As I’m sure you know, we are living through some hard times.  Many of us have had to cut back – staff, services, programs, funding, etc.  And that has deep impact on the work we do.

Awhile ago, one of my teachers told me that while pain is inevitable in our lives, suffering is optional.  At first I bristled at the idea that we could opt out of suffering – look at how many people on the planet are subsisting, living through war, famine and oppression.  How dare I even entertain the notion that suffering could be optional?

And then I began volunteering at my local hospice organization.  I accompanied a number of people in their last journey, many of whom were in incredible pain.  There were those who, despite great physical pain, never suffered.  I began to understand that suffering is a state of mind, something over which I have control.  It is my emotional reaction to pain that makes for suffering, not the presence of pain alone.  I particularly remember E., an old woman dying of cancer who was always gracious, caring and funny as all get out, despite constant considerable pain.  It was an honor to walk that last path with her.  She was in pain, but she did not suffer.

Most of you who may read this piece are probably not in the last six months of living and dying.  Most of you (me included) are trying to run programs or organizations, get children fed and educated, take care of the environment, or support those who are doing these kinds of things.  And there are times when we have to make quite painful decisions – decisions which will impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.  As leaders, we have the responsibility to make painful decisions in ways that do not increase suffering.

Many years ago I consulted to an organization in which the executive director hated to upset people and wouldn’t give challenging feedback when it was needed.  As a result, she had a number of people on staff who were not performing.  One person in particular hadn’t been performing well for years, and was a real roadblock to both her peers and to those whom she supervised.  There she sat, like a boulder in the middle of a rushing stream, holding up work, making the lives of those around her miserable.  She too, was miserable.  It would have been a gift to all concerned had the director developed the courage to let her go.  Instead, the whole staff suffered. And so did the work.

I’ve come to understand that delaying a painful decision increases the suffering in ourselves, our organizations, and our communities.  I am not advocating making difficult decisions quickly, I am advocating making them in mindful and timely ways.  It is our responsibility as leaders to do so, and to not avoid doing what is necessary in order to decrease our own pain.

Take a moment and consider:

  • Is there a difficult decision or conversation I’ve been putting off?
  • If so, what are the consequences of avoiding this?
  • Why am I putting it off?
  • Who might I be “protecting”?
  • If my commitment is to transforming our world and decreasing suffering in it, what might I need to do?
  • What support will I need?

As leaders we sometimes have to make painful choices, hopefully not often.  When we do make them, let’s find ways to minimize or eliminate suffering -- there is enough of that around already.

In this painful time, I appreciate you who are working hard toward the common good.  We all suffer less as a result of your work.


June 2009