Usefulness of Suffering

Suffering by its very nature is difficult to ignore, particularly by one who suffers. Pain calls attention to itself to the exclusion of all else. For one who is an observer, the matter may be less poignant but no less demanding of attention. More than any other human condition, suffering seeks meaning, it demands definition and understanding, yet it is elusive and seems to lack definability. Although many philosophers and theologians have applied their worldview in attempting to understand suffering, it more elucidates that view than it does enlighten suffering. Suffering brings up questions of the existence and nature of God as well as the nature of man and the natural order of things. It is also very useful in moving one from a place of stagnation (or comfort) to a higher level of development (whether this be personality development or movement toward transcendence. Sometimes these forces act on us without our choice. Other times we may have to choose to face suffering rather than remain where we are.

The existence of suffering is important in all the helping professions. I believe that, at least in part, pain is a signal that something is wrong or needs to change. It is implicit when visiting a medial doctor that the patient tells the doctor “where it hurts”. The symptoms of pain, the types, intensity and specific locations are quite important to the diagnosis and treatment of physical maladies. The symptoms often act as a guidepost or directional indicator, leading the doctor to the area of difficulty. For the most part, mental illness involves one or another form of suffering or pain. For mental health treatment the symptoms often act in the same manner, guiding the clinician toward the area of trouble. Suffering is also a powerful motivator in getting one into therapy and consequently it is a motivator of change.

When I was in my early twenties, my father was very ill with bone cancer. He was in tremendous pain most of the time, which all the family experienced on some level. One evening when I was sleeping next to him on a cot (I did this occasionally to act as his caretaker), I woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning. He was looking at me and said, “Entertain me”. Still half asleep and in a confused state to begin with, I had no idea how to respond to him. I sat there paralyzed for several minutes before I was able to say that I didn’t know what to do. He fell back asleep. All that night and for years, this incident haunted me. Shortly after his death I went into therapy and it was not long before I changed the course of my life and went back to school to get my Masters Degree in counseling. I have just recently begun to understand that this event was life changing and has defined not only my choice of careers but also how I have chosen to work with people in therapy.

Throughout history there have been many attempts to make sense of suffering. Some are driven by a theological perspective, trying to understand how a creator could make one suffer or even how a divine God could allow pain to afflict his people. Others have tried to explain suffering from a more secular point of view. Watson, (1986) places these two worldviews on a “continuum of truth”. This provides us with a fairly good framework from which we can look at the history of this complex philosophical question.

The Roman and Greek stoic philosophers believed that the cosmos was by divine intention perfect and orderly and that a happy virtuous man will attempt to make his life orderly as well. This might be described by Watson as an orthodox religious worldview and implies a corrective meaning for suffering. Speusippus in fourth century BC speaks to the “freedom from disturbance”. The opposite of disturbance is happiness and is achieved through the “good man” living a virtuous life. (cited in Dillon, 1977). Plato was most concerned with measuring pleasure and pains against one another. In this complex dialectic Plato saw pleasure as a natural state of harmony or a “perceived filling or restoration of harmony” where it is lacking; pain is the lack or absence of this state and caused by the lack of understanding of the world, ignorance). He also describes several types of “false” pleasure and pain, which is not simply a physical state but rather the way ones mind interprets or creates the state (cited in Frede, 1992).

Roman stoic philosophy expresses various feelings and affect as expressions of evil and weakness. All sin (evil) is due to a lack of lack of moral force and an unhealthy condition of the soul. Sin and evil are states such as pain, fear, greed and anger and can cause a ruffling, disturbance or disease. Both the latter are forms of evil; the last is a vice that poisons one’s whole nature. To give into these maladies is weakness and is a collapse of stoic virtue (cited in Vernon, 1958).

Whereas the stoics believed that the cosmos was perfect and good, the Buddhists philosophy sees life as suffering. This is the first of the four noble truths (America On Line, 1995; Peck, 1989). As with the stoics, a person suffers due to his human cravings and desires and is the second of the four noble truths. As with the stoics, the Buddhists teach that ones orientation should be to discipline oneself. In Buddhism this is achieved meditation. A person must master his desires through renouncing human craving and live in harmony with the universe and thereby achieve Nirvana. Nietzsche wrote from a more secular atheistic standpoint. In Hulin, (1991) the author discusses Nietzsche’s interpretation of the Indian ascetic and the philosophy of Buddhism. He speaks of the ascetic as one who “exalts himself with a feeling of superiority over his tormentor”. Suffering is not to be overcome but to be intensified; thereby the ascetic may experience bliss and power. One must strive to become the Overman, which is achieved by “living dangerously” (Smoklin ,1989). Suffering constitutes only an intermediate psychological and existential stage on the path to positive power and becoming the Overman. Constant striving is necessary and never ending. The idea that there is a developmental process that occurs in man as he grows beyond suffering is similar to Buddhism. The idea that one has to strive “for” is counter to the Buddhist philosophy. The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita (Smoklin, 1989) also supports the Stoical acceptance of the vicissitudes of life. Hinduism teaches that freedom from human attachments is the way to union with Brahman.

Christian thinkers have struggled with suffering covers several gradients of Watson’s continuum of epistemologies of suffering. The first is that of orthodox religionism and sees all suffering as due to divine punishment. Similar to the stoic view, suffering is due to the evil of man. God punishes the sinful man. Freedom from suffering is concomitant with the freedom from sin and is achieved through pious duty to religious tenants of goodness. The problem with this type of redemptive suffering is in the suffering of innocents. How could God punish one who has not sinned? Calvin (cited in Soelle, 1975) Stated that God is simply “fattening [the ungodly] like pigs for the slaughter.” He believed that humans are, “miserable sinners, conceived and born in guilt…” In his view all are sinful; there are no innocents. In this view, all humanity is corrupted by original sin. This notion of a sadistic God is difficult to tolerate for one who believes that God is good and just. Whereas the notion of a punishing God is felt to be inadequate, the notion of God testing and leading one toward a more disciplined life is easier to understand.

In Christian thought, the idea that suffering is testing of faith is seen as the sharing of Christ’s suffering on the cross ( Hebblethwaite, 1976). In Islam, the idea of suffering as testing of faith is tantamount. The student of the Islamic faith expects to suffer and through the suffering he will be joined with Allah. Again for Christian thinkers the idea that suffering (particularly in it’s extreme form) is a test of faith casts doubts on the goodness of God. Suffering to discipline moral character is again easier to understand in consideration of the normal tribulations of life. This idea can be seen in the stoic’s worldview. It is again difficult to understand horrible suffering caused by great natural disasters or acts of wickedness on the scale of Auschwitz.

Moving toward the more secular scientific is the naturalistic view. This tenet purports that the universe was created and is as it is. God does not interfere with the natural order of things; he does not intervene in preventing of causing suffering. Suffering is a natural part of a universe as is constructed. Natural disasters sometimes happen; people are sometimes wicked and torture and kill others. Kohl, (1979) says that the challenge is not to eliminate suffering, but to identify and remedy that which can be remedied.

Lucretus (cited in Hebblethwaite, 1976) believed that the world and man himself are nothing but a chance concourse of atoms. This orthodox scientific view can be seen today in the materialistic predominance of the biological and physical sciences. Although and atheist, Lucrteius touted a similar path as the stoics. One must make a fearless and calm quest for happiness. “Free from superstition, remorse and passion, the wise man simply cultivates friendship and knowledge, putting away all sources of mental suffering.”

Existential philosophies such as that of Maslow (1962) speak of the goal of authentic existence, which he calls “self actualization”. This is similar to Nietzche’s Overman. He states that one must have his “deficiency needs” satisfied and must also be able to embrace his pain. This is seems to be a developmental theory that includes a religious element.

Freud was much more pragmatic and deterministic in his view and might be seen as orthodox scientism. He saw pain as integral part of his developmental theory. He believed that without pain, infants would remain in their primary narcissistic mode of thinking (Smolklin, 1989). He also said that religion was a defense against suffering and served the purpose of, “depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner”. In this he shows his materialistic view of the world and it properties.


Central Paradigm

The hypothesis that this writer is proposing is a naturalistic view of suffering. I believe that all suffering whether it be physical pain, psychological or social suffering serves the same purpose. First, suffering exists because that is how the world is designed, whether it be the design of a specific creator of simply the evolutionary process that occurred without divine intervention. Second pain serves as a signal that something is wrong and need to be addressed or changed. Third, suffering leads to growth and movement to the next level of organization and transcendence, whether that be personal growth, or social growth. This may be difficult to see in the context of a single person who must endure terrible torture or suffering. But ultimately, humanity may choose to use the suffering of an individual or group of individuals to propel then into further development. Last, the concept of quantum physics can be seen as the “glue that binds” all suffering to a universal developmental path for humans.

At birth an infant is forced, squalling, from a dark quiet place of comfort and warmth to a bright, cold, noise filled world. This is perhaps the first experience of suffering in a long line of similar experiences that the infant must meet in order to grow and develop.

Each step an infant takes toward becoming a more complete human being is fraught with possibilities dangers of physical or emotional pain. As an infant approaches more autonomous functioning these dangers become more salient. (Howard, 1976) reinterprets the original version of the myth of Oedipus as described by Freud (although he does not completely discount Freud’s interpretation). The author explains the myth as an external representation of growth and transcendence through striving and suffering. When Oedipus was confronted with the oracles warning, he could have chosen to back down from any future challenges. He could have simply hidden from life. Instead he chose to kill a man that was old enough to be his father and he took the crown of Thebes. Oedipus did not have to walk the path that lead to the crown and the marriage to his mother. In striving to challenge his limits he paid the price and suffered. The author goes on to say:

Who, then, is Oedipus? Potentially he is any one of us. He is the human being who must make the choice to stand still or to grow, to become rotten or to accept the pain and glory of transcendence. He is still the ambivalent person who wants to stay where he is and still move on, who must make a choice and tries not to and in the end chooses growth. He is every child, every therapy patient every human being who chooses struggle above infantile safety and freedom over stultification. Oedipus is every one of us who gives up the dream of perfection and accepts his vulnerability, using it to generate courage to grow while knowing that that will lead him into pain.

There are also aspects of development that are less voluntary. Early development involves a child taking in aspects of the caretaker after a crisis or “violation” of caretaking has occurred. This process is called transmuting internalization through optimal frustration (Wolf, 1988). Because the child idealizes a caretaker and is frustrated, he or she is able to take on or internalize these care taking function as part of themselves. Although these “failures” must be small to allow the internalization, it is undoubtedly painful to some degree. When trauma occurs in the cartaking, this is where pathology can develop and suffering for the child can be magnified many fold. I believe that this suffering then serves the purpose to allow a person to heal the wound that occurred do to that trauma in early caretaking.

Faulber, Faulberg & Wolfer (1992) differentiate between a spiritual crisis or emergency and pathology. They indicate that the later should be treated as an illness and the former should be treated with information, facilitation and possibly referral for spiritual guidance. They explicate an important point in describing the limitations of the first paradigm. The first paradigm that is assumes by much of mainstream western society is materialistic and that biological and social science is the way to describe disturbance. This does not allow room for the second paradigm that recognizes a reality beyond the strictly physical. This is a dualistic view and although useful for a treating professional to keep in mind, there are some limitations to this view. There are certainly different reasons behind the experience of crisis and suffering. There is a problem with this approach. Even in pathology, people might have the opportunity to grow beyond the struggle that has caused the “injury”. When one begins to categorize illness into one type as growth promoting and another as pathological, this can lead to delimiting possibilities for the “pathological”. It might be more valuable to view all disturbances as striving for growth and treat them as such. Of course, the case of biologically induced illness is more difficult to understand as a signal for growth. I will attempt to explain this in a later section.

There are certainly a number of theodicies that speak of suffering as wholly destructive; there is and can be no explanation for the terrible evils caused by man and nature. This view is often born out of a struggle to understand how God, who is all good, could allow suffering. Nietzsche said, “God is dead”. He then went on to say that man must achieve advancement and power by becoming the Overman. This is similar to my developmental view of suffering, but seems limited in that Nietzsche Overman must strive to posses and rule. Although the Christian view that suffering is retribution for sin, testing or designed to develop discipline, this is limited for the most part to what is considered as Christian ethic at the time. The stoics said that suffering (and human pleasures) was to be endured without flinching. In my view this idea is too much like repression. I believe that one must embrace his suffering and the suffering of the world, find a meaning for himself, thereby using it to grow. One must challenge himself (as in Nietzsche’s Overman) at times to face suffering rather than ignore it. At times a person may collapse under the strain of suffering, become disillusioned by the tragedy of it; he may feel helpless in the face of it. But through self-exploration and healing he may transcend. This idea is born out by Soelle, 1975) in her three stages of suffering. The first is mute suffering, where a person for a time is so overwhelmed that he in a sense seaces to be human and is struck dumb with the weight of it all. Second is communication of the suffering. Putting words to it allows it to take on a meaning, which allows one to change or reorganize their experience. Frankle, (1959) has a similar concept of meaning and suffering. Soelle also speaks of a social consciounce developing out of the suffering of the world. To deny the reality of the world is to, “destroy people’s ability to feel anything”. Peck (1978, 1994), Gruba-McCalister also speaks of denial of suffering as simply creating more suffering.

Suffering as development does have some weaknesses. As with all the theodicies of suffering, it is difficult to make sense of suffering of innocents and natural disasters or social atrocities. This seems to be a problem especially the theological views. I have no definitive answer to this although, Soelle’s concept that the person responding to such suffering can learn from the experience. A good example is a mother who tragically looses her son to a drunk driver suffers tremendously, then starts campaigning against drunk driver, gets law changed, and gathers follows, in effect raising the consciousness of society as a whole. Ultimately this still does not justify the suffering of the child who may have dies in indescribable pain. To explain an innocent child’s suffering in terms of social development is not sufficient. I also have some difficulty justifying the way my father died in order for me to grow. In some strange was, perhaps it was his gift to me. Although there may be several ways that people with different worldviews might try to understand this, at this point I can only say that I don’t know the answer.


Implications for Practice

When my father, on his deathbed, asked me to entertain him, I believe he was asking me to relieve his suffering for a moment. He may have been trying to connect with his son to be close in a way that he was never able to in his life. I regret not understanding any of this. In my horror I was unable to hear, unable to respond except with avoidance, because I could not handle it. I now realize that that moment was probably the time when I decided, on some level, to help others in pain. It propelled me to psychology as a career and to work with people in the way that I do. Although I might have become a therapist that desperately tries to prevent or relieve suffering, this did not happen. I believe that the hopelessness of my father’s illness is possible in all suffering. The gift I received was that attempting to free a person from suffering is the wrong course. Suffering must run its course toward death or toward growth and we must embrace our suffering and the suffering of others to make meaning. Rather than attempting to free on from suffering, I believe that a psychologist or counselor must be with a person in his pain, to decode and understand the meaning that it has for them and the message that it is trying to tell. As Engendorf (unknown ) says “the way beyond is through”. Although, I could not be with my father (in the way he wanted) in his suffering, I can do this with others. In this way I believe I can help people to find meaning to their suffering and grow. Sometimes the suffering occurs because of halted development, surviving trauma or even biological causes. Although this can be seen as pathology, their pain (symptoms) is communication. Through his or her pain, I hope to be able to determine what is needed and help them to continue on path of growth.



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