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.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Suffering 1

My subject here is a vast one indeed – one that affects every sentient being or feeling creature. It is a very broad topic indeed that can be discussed in philosophy, ethics, morality, religion, theology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, politics, history, literature, economics, health studies, social care etc. The list is endless, indeed. Over the next several posts I’ll deal with it under as many headings as I possibly can.

1. Origins of My Interest: My awareness of this issue began many years ago when I was at college in Mater Dei Institute of Education in the late seventies of the last century. I was always interested in philosophical questions and was quite taken with how classical philosophy and theology had managed to square the existence of a Good God with the presence of Evil in the world. Obviously suffering is a subset of the overarching topic of Evil. I went on to read both St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas on this question.

2. First Experiences: Who has not experienced suffering in their lives from the simple toothache right across to other more serious ailments? My own father contracted poliomyelitis when he was in his middle forties. Thankfully, he lost only the use of his right arm while many others at the time lost the use of legs and some even had to live horrible lives in iron lungs. When I was around thirteen years old my Uncle John, a lovely gentle soul, developed gangrene in both legs and lost over a period of some three or four years every toe and then both lower limbs. He finally went blind before he died. I remember, upon hearing the news of his death, my mother putting her head in her hands and crying – as much in relief, I suspect, as in sadness. Why such suffering? Big question, good question – seeking some form of answer. Hence as a young man of 21 years I set out to write my degree thesis on the “Mystery of Evil” in the world.

3. Further Experiences: Within weeks of my writing my thesis, which grew out of my above mentioned two points, my first experience of death by suicide struck. One of my friends called Paulene (I won’t type her second name for privacy sake) took her own life in a very tragic manner. She was only 21 years old. One Friday evening she went home and gassed herself. Her poor grandmother found her. Her father, a Doctor, had died tragically in a car accident in Africa while her mother had never really got over this tragic loss. Poor Paulene was lost, so lost and so lonely and so hurting that she ended her sad life. I learned from one of her close friends that she was writing her thesis on “The Problem of Suffering.” (I often wonder what happened to this and whether anyone ever read it.) Needless to say, all the college staff and students were very upset and not a little confused at this sudden death. About a year later, another tragic incident occurred – the sad death of two student friends of mine in an horrific car accident. One of these friends, Theresa, I had sat with the previous evening for nearly two hours, chatting about bits and pieces. Theresa was a lovely second year only 18 or 19 years old with a brilliant enquiring mind – she had always come out with top marks in Philosophy and Logic. The next day she was dead. These sad occurrences helped humanize or existentialize (if I may coin a neologism) my philosophical musings on the question of evil and suffering in life.

4. The World at War: As readers of these pages will know, I have an abiding interest in the literature and arts that were inspired by both World Wars from poetry to prose, to biography and autobiography; from film to sculpture to painting. I read history in very tangential and indirect ways rather than as pure history. Mere facts do not grasp my attention – rather the human desire to deal with those facts is what sparks my interest. It’s well I remember looking at the wonderful series of television programmes called just that – The World at War – in the early seventies as a young boy of 14 years of age. I was enthralled and moved by the depths of human suffering on such a grand scale. Here is how the WIKI describes this wonderful series: “The World at War is a 26-episode television documentary series on World War II, including the events leading up to it and following in its wake. The series was produced by Jeremy Isaacs for Thames Television (UK). Commissioned in 1969, it took four years to produce, such was the depth of its research. It premiered on ITV in 1973 at a cost of £4 million, a record (at the time) for a British television programme. The series was narrated by Laurence Olivier and its score was composed by Carl Davis.” I have bought this series in DVD format long since.

5. Guernica: During my writing of my Bachelor’s thesis on Evil in the seventies I came across the great painting by Pablo Picasso called simply and eponymously Guernica. This latter is a town in the Basque country of Spain and was the scene of the April 26, 1937 indiscriminate bombing, one of the first aerial bombings by Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe. Sad to say, that this town Guernica has entered the lexicon of “terror bombing” with the two great cities of Rotterdam and Dresden (bombed by the Allies of course) Terror bombing may be defined as the deliberate bombing of civilians to sap the morale of the enemy and cause chaos. As such it would constitute a war crime. The painting Guernica by Picasso depicts suffering people, animals, and buildings broken by violence and chaos. There is simply too much in this painting by way of symbols for me to comment on here, but the depiction of the horse falling in agony at its very centre as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin, I find very moving, because the horse is such a symbol of civilization and beauty and innocence. I am reminded also here that Friedrich Nietzsche threw his arms around the neck of a badly beaten horse in the streets of Turin at the very apogee of his great nervous breakdown. Significant I feel, also, is the shape of a human skull that forms the horse's nose and upper teeth in Picasso’s famous painting.

Needless to say, the above image is that of Pablo Picasso's famous painting called simply and eponymously Guernica.

In Search of a Centre that can Hold

In Search of a Poem

It has been too long since I last wrote a poem - or more properly made one – because these days the words refuse to take any poem-like shape. It has become so much easier a task to write a prose piece like the present one. Making a poem requires too much re-writing and too much effort. When I do manage, once in a very long while, to make one that I am satisfied with it gives me great pleasure indeed. Unfortunately, such satisfaction happens too infrequently.

I still do, of course, feel the urge to write, to create shapes, forms and meanings with words, what the late great Anthony Burgess called the effort to “make words behave.” However, I have to satisfy myself with this prosaic substitute. Small things occupy strange places in my mind these days – like the picture on my late uncle Ted’s wall of my great grandfather and mother staring into what would seem to have been an unfriendly camera (they are not smiling) way back in 1880s or maybe some time before that; the coldness of Ted’s hands as he lay placid in his coffin as I touched them according to custom; stray memories of my conversations with him over thirty years ago; memories of my friendship with my cousins; the funereal talk at the wake; the sandwiches, the tea, the coffee, the whiskey and the cake; the laughs; the renewal of old friendships; the meeting and the parting of friends. All these things are in my mind as I type these thoughts, but all of them are refusing to be shaped into a poem.

Sometimes as I sit and write I often wonder whether I think these thoughts or whether these thoughts are really thinking me. Or, then again, maybe both actions are going on at one and the same time. Then thoughts of other things hi-jack my mind like the sheer loneliness of the young twenty-three year old man, whom I taught some years back, who took his life on the 3rd of January 2008. What a sad, miserable and horrific start to 2008 for his mother and father, for other family members, friends and colleagues. It is chilling to contemplate at how low an ebb that poor boy must have been; in what dark corners of his mind he was imprisoned; what horrific thoughts had hi-jacked his mind before he ended the torture; what was the last lonely though in his troubled mind. Did he think of his girlfriend and their little baby boy – not too long born? Who knows?

And still the words do not want to behave, though I type to attempt to make some sense of everything that occupies my mind – those strange pieces of intellectual furniture. How do I put this jigsaw together? How do I shape the play dough or putty or plaster in my hands? I am no Auguste Rodin.

Too much thinking can sometimes be a bad thing, especially if the thinker is prone to a mental illness like depression. Then, there is what can be termed “too much thinking about thinking” which is the hallmark of an obsessive-compulsive personality – not to mention the cognitive and meta-cognitive dimensions of the same in contemporary thinking - Cognitive Behaviour Therapy - about the same. How words and jargon can muddy the water or cloud the sky or confuse everyone including the very writer of these words. It is, after all, very easy to trip oneself up.

And so all these words are here, perhaps not worthless or meaningless, all because I failed to make a poem. T.S. Eliot once referred to the forging of connections between seemingly disparate experiences or things as being part of the poetic experience. (I have here paraphrased very roughly indeed Eliot’s actual words, which I cannot recall verbatim after a gap of almost 30 years since I was at college.)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the "stilly water" (as Kavanagh so well put it about the Grand Canal) of The Garravogue river, Co. Sligo. Fittingly, I walked its beautiful banks while attending a poetry convention at the Model Arts and Niland Gallery in September 2006. I also penned a poem as the result of my sauntering alongside its watery presence.