Saturday, January 12, 2008

Suffering 2

If the reader checks the labels to the side of this blog he/she will notice that to date I have written some 50 entries related to the topic of Suffering and another 23 on Evil.  Indeed, the two topics denoted by these two terms overlap to a great extent and in many written accounts are deemed practically identical.  I suppose if there is one distinguishing factor the former - Suffering - relates more to the human experience of the phenomenon of Evil in our lives, the amount of pain we feel and how we cope with this, while the latter term - Evil - refers more to the general phenomenon as it occurs in this world of ours, hence we have such specific examples of Evil as natural evil like earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis,  floods, and then moral evil such as the unlawful and immoral actions of people towards each other and towards other sentient creatures and even towards the planet Earth itself.

I have already written numerous posts on the more theological and philosophical aspects of the Mystery of Evil outlining in depth the various approaches throughout the history of western civilization from St Augustine up to more modern attempts at theodicy which have been advanced by philosophers and theologians over the intervening years.  See the following link and the posts immediately after the first post on this topic in this blog here Earlier Discussion.

While the previous accounts dealt with the more theoretical and philosophical aspects, I hope to deal with the more existential and personal and indeed interpersonal aspects of the topic of Suffering here.  I also hope to bring in insights from the Eastern philosophical and religious traditions also.  Thus I feel that I will be able to grapple with this topic in a more comprehensive and more profound manner.


Preliminary Distinction

I feel that the most important distinction that can be made in the present topic under discussion is that between physical and mental suffering.  This is indeed a good distinction by way of a starting point.  Examples of physical suffering are very easy to give indeed - breaking one's leg right on up to more horrific maiming of bodily parts due to accidents or crimes are examples that come immediately to mind.  When asked what examples mental suffering might cover one thinks of all the different types of mental and emotional pain like schizophrenia, the various forms of depression like polar, bipolar and reactive, the various phobias, grief at the death of a loved one or grief after being jilted or even a sense of worthlessness in our lives. 

However, while this distinction is a very important one, it is also wise to point out that such distinctions are never as black and white or as cut and dried as a literal interpretation of them would allow.  Those of us involved in Mental Health Education realise all too well that the mind and body are very closely inter-related.  Many of us prefer the term Body-Mind these days.  I believe that much bad practice and not a little suffering can be traced back to the dualism of Body and Soul or Body and Mind advocated by Descartes.  This Cartesian dualism has influenced a lot of past and present bad practice in areas as far apart as education and health.  Indeed, Mental Health Matters, the TY programme lessons start by adverting to the fact that many (if not all, if we are pushed to think deeply about it) physical diseases have their psychological side effects while many psychological illnesses also have their physiological side effects. In this way a crude separation of the two is avoided.  However, the distinction is an important one as it allows us to discuss the topic more fully and comprehensively. 

Some Recent Examples:

We will never be short of examples of mental suffering.  As regards our own school we had two critical incidents last year - the death of a fifteen year old student who collapsed during the Easter holidays and the sad murder of a sixth year on his graduation night.  The trauma caused by both incidents was great needless to say and the fall out still continues.  However, luckily we had access to professional help, good pastoral care practices and other good human interaction.  This was and is real suffering as it hits us existentially or at the very core of our being.  In the last week or so my own uncle died - an example of suffering for his family, but happily it was a celebration of a successful and fairly long life, not a tragedy.  I mention this latter fact as we heard that a recent past pupil has taken his own life.  We were all cut to the quick as we had taught this young lad who was only 23.  As a sufferer from endogenous or uni-polar depression, which has been successfully treated for some ten years now, I can appreciate to a large extent the depths to which the mind can be brought during horrible bouts of depression.  Those darks depths of despondency are really nowhere to linger for any length of time.  The longer the time period persists, the more likely it becomes that suicide is an option, or more correctly the only option perceived by the person himself or herself.

Coping Skills:

As I progress through my life and as the years recede I feel I have gained a realistic perspective on life.  Things and events that I once deemed as so important have become less so.  The opposite is also the case: things that I once deemed of little significance have now become of major importance. We learn coping skills as we go along, as we reach out to and are helped by others and as we in turn reach out to and help them.  I'll list a few important lessons here under this subheading:

1. No one is perfect.  Indeed I am not perfect.  I accept myself with all my faults and failings.  I do my best to improve my strengths and lessen my weaknesses.  My best is enough for me, and therefor, it some be good enough for others.  Also no family is perfect.  Every family is dysfunctional, but some are more dysfunctional than others.  Likewise, the world is a very imperfect place.  We will never have a perfect planet.  However, we should strive and work towards a more fully complete or whole world even if we never get there.  That's what matters - the desire to improve.  Let's pursue standards of excellence not perfection.

2. A guy called Aiden Nolan said the following and its wisdom is wonderful.  I wish I had come up with this wonderfully simple insight into human nature:

"The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise."

3.I love the following quotation from Carl Jung, one of my favourite psychiatrists and a wonderfully wise man too:

"There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness."

4. The following quotation from the great Vietnamese Buddhist -Thich Nhat Hanh - is beautifully simple because it simply portrays my above point of the inter-relatedness of physical and mental health (and by contradistinction suffering)

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

5. I have always loved the writings of John Henry Newman both for its wisdom and style.  Indeed, Newman was a quintessential master of style.  (I was lucky enough in being able to write my Master's thesis on his thought).  He said succinctly "growth is the only evidence of life."  Still again he advises that "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."  Again I remember this wonderful piece of advice so well put: "Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it."   Obviously Newman was a man of his time, an eminent Victorian, but much of his writing as a modernist twist to it thankfully.  Growth implies pain, i.e., growing pains - pain is the price we have to pay for growth.  As the contemporary coaching adage puts it: "No pain, no gain!"

6.  Here's a wonderful little piece of Wisdom to finish this post on from the football coach Maurice Setter:

"Too many people miss the silver lining because they're expecting gold."

Autumn in Aulden Grange where I live. For me Autumn is one of the most beautiful of seasons, and it represents change and growth and their inevitability and that of death.

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