Friday, June 17, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 8

The Question of Suffering

The Hill of Cavary at Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo
The question of suffering has been and continues to be a contentious problem in the field of theology.  Most religions have a theology which is a reflection on their particular beliefs and tenets in order to justify at some level the reasonableness of those convictions.  Within theology a theodicy is a serious argumentation for the defense of a good God who allows evil to occur.  I have dealt with the question of evil many times in these posts over the years.  However, whether one is a believer or not; whether one is a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist or an agnostic, the question of suffering is a central and existential problem, if not mystery.  It is very much part of the nature of being human; very much part of the human condition.  Indeed, there is also suffering in the animal kingdom, a world to which we belong also.  That animals have feelings and do suffer is beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the fact that they are not self-reflective beings as we humans are is also widely acknowledged.  To suffer is indeed part of our animal baggage, but to be aware that we suffer and that we are going to suffer and inevitably die is very much part of the human baggage, and arguably this makes our suffering much worse.

Creative Arts Therapy and its take on Suffering

Yellow poppy, Ballintubber Abbey, Co. Mayo
Professor Levine argues that what the trainee creative arts therapist offers in his or her presentation to the group is the very personal suffering of the presenter.  He argues that such personal suffering is that which in daily life we do our utmost to keep to ourselves; to keep hidden behind the masks we wear or the role we play in life.  Indeed, we keep our suffering hidden, because to reveal it would risk our giving away this treasured secret of our suffering, for fear that it will not be recognised or accepted.  Then he makes an interesting and insightful comment that we do not give it away because we simply have not learnt to own it in the first place.  In other words we are in a state of denial - we deny at a conscious level our suffering and attempt to suppress and repress it.  Let me return to Professor Levine's words here:

Most of us do not view our suffering as a gift to be treasured; we see it instead as a foreign object that has entered our souls and must be expelled.  We repress it, deny it, project it,, do anything we can to rid ourselves of it.  Our suffering is what hurts us, what causes us pain; and our natural reaction is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, as Freud pointed out so clearly in his account of psychic life.  (Poiesis, p 55)
Suffering as Gift?

Suspended crucifix, Ballintubber Abbey
At first sight to say that suffering is a gift seems to be nothing short of an absurdity.  One might say that if one accepted such a ludicrous proposition one was putting oneself into the camp of the absurdists, only going further by saying that not alone was Camus' take on Sisyphus' rolling his stone interminably up the hill only to have it roll back down again and again heart-breakingly absurd, but that somehow poor Sisyphus was receiving a gift to strengthen his purity of heart or mind or soul to add further to the absurdity.  How ludicrously absurd would such a suggestion be!  As a sufferer from clinical depression, and having spent some 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital, thankfully now some twelve years ago, and having to take on-going psychopharmocological intervention in the shape of drugs, I can share this type of incredulous reaction to such an ansurd suggestion.  I remember my wonderful psychiatrist once opining that one poor patient's reading left a lot to be desired as the title of the book she was reading was "The Gift of Depression."  He declared to me: "Depression is no gift.  It is pure hell!"  And he was right, but wrong at the same time.  Let me explain.

I have always been taken with philosophers, theologians, psychiatrists and doctors who can answer thorny questions which demand a simplistic "yes" or "no" answer with an answer prefaced by these words:  "The answer is yes in so far as... and no in so far as..."  These are experts who carry within them a truthful and practical epistemology or theory of knowledge.  After all, there are few certainties in the world with the exception of say birth, growth, decay and death.  Most other things are vastly uncertain.  And so to the question "Is depression a gift?", the answer is "Yes it is a gift insofar as the wretched sufferer can learn much once s/he has accepted the suffering as best they can and have learnt to move on and make the best of things, have learnt how to cope and have discovered new depths and heights (us whatever metaphor you wish) to their own soul.  But the answer is also "No" at one and the same time, because depression is debilitating, dis-empowering, humiliating and it strips the person of all self-control and so on and so forth."  Such answers, I have argued many times in these pages, are healthy answers because the avoid the false dichotomy or polarity of an either/or answer and embrace the true dichotomy or polarity of a shared both/and answer which implies a very healthy tension indeed.

It is only in this context that I can agree with Professor Levine that suffering, indeed all suffering, can be viewed as a gift.  In the first place, he argues that it is a gift because it literally has been given to us, indeed like our very life.  We suffer in our life, in the sense that we have to undergo that very life through no choice of our own; when we can no longer choose; when we are no longer in control and when even our mind has revolted and refuses to obey; when we have reached the limits of our power and are rendered powerless to do anything to improve our lot. 

This is very much the heart of Greek tragedy.  The ancient tragedians Aeschylus  (ca.525/524 BC – ca. 455/456 BC),  Sophocles (ca. 497/6 BC –  ca. 406/5 BC) and Euripides (ca. 480 BC – 406 BC) wrote their plays about themes based on human suffering, and indeed that is the very essence of tragedy.  We may, therefore, define tragedy (Ancient Greek: τραγῳδία, tragōidia, "he-goat-song") as a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure or release from frightening emotions through some form of purging through a process the ancient Greeks called catharsis. (Catharsis or katharsis (Ancient Greek: κάθαρσις) is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."
Once again, as we practically tie ourselves us in knots at this extremely difficult mystery of suffering, we turn to the words of Professor Levine for a little illumination.  Catch whatever wisdom you can from reading these words:

But our suffering is also a gift in the second sense that it can be a basis of our power and vitality.  When Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) discovered suffering, he abandoned the palace of his father and went in search of a remedy.  In the end, all his attempts at eliminating suffering failed.  It was only when he came to accept that existence is suffering that he achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha.  That is, he had to experience suffering not as a condition extrinsic to life that could be eliminated but rather as the very core of existence.  Paradoxically, this experience led him not to greater suffering but to compassion, infinite compassion for all beings, including himself.  This compassion is another word for joy.  (Ibid., p. 56)
In like manner, then, in the ancient tragedies as indeed in the Shakespearean or Elizabethan ones it is the great and the good, the heroes and leaders of society who are afflicted with one or another suffering from the gods, or from the fates or fate or use whatever metaphor you are comfortable with here.  It seems that the gods wound only those whom they love dearly.  That wound becomes a gift if it is accepted, if it is "borne." 

I remember once saying to an acquaintance much of the sentiments of the previous several paragraphs, but she began to cry and tell me that she thought not, that her recently departed husband (who had deserted her for another woman) had written and published much of value but had suffered little.  At the time I knew that she was speaking from a very wounded place and was expressing herself at a time very close to her desertion and betrayal.  I wonder how she might feel now.

Anyhow, and I feel a little too cavalierly, Professor Levine continues by stating that pain, once it is accepted and treasured as one's own, can be a source of wisdom and joy.  Strong words indeed, but a little too easily said, and yet, there is a truth in what he says...  He goes on to inform us readers that quite often the presenter "touches" others with his/her pain, allowing the listeners or witnesses to undertake the same journey in their own lives.  He goes on in a passionate way, and indeed uses religious language to carry that very passion and tells us that often members of the group will be moved to share their own experiences of suffering and will become "witnesses" and will "testify" to their own experiences of similar human limitation and contingency.

Let me now bring this post to an end with Professor Levine's apt words:

What is wonderful is that the exchange of suffering forms a community of healing.  When the spirit of the gift touches the group, sorrow is transformed into joy.  This is not the "happiness" that comes from avoiding pain, a condition that is shallow, transitory and unreal.  Rather it is the deep, abiding and authentic encounter of soul with itself and soul with other.  It is communitas, the experience of human kindness. (Ibid., p. 57)

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