What We Don’t Know Hurts

Does anybody believe in the old saying that “what I don’t know can’t hurt me”?  The reality is that we are hurt every day by what we do not know and, in turn, we hurt others.  It is both a shattering and humbling revelation when we come to know what we did not know and realise how so many of our decisions and choices were unconsciously made. Scientists have finally accepted that we have an unconscious and they agree that only a small fraction of what we do and say is consciously chosen. 

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Challenging Times

Recently I happened to pop into a coffee shop for a coffee and a sandwich and got into a conversation with a fellow male customer.  As our conversation developed he told me that he was unemployed, had high blood-pressure, high cholesterol was depressed and was experiencing insomnia.  His G.P. had prescribed medications for his blood pressure and high cholesterol and had also put him on anti-depressants and sleeping tablets.  He had previously worked for an accountancy firm, but due to the recession, had been laid off with no future prospects of being re-employed.  He told me he was really struggling financially and now did not have the cash to go to his G.P. for monitoring of his medication.  He is awaiting a medical card and has been told that it will take months for his application to be processed.  Neither is he able to afford the different medications and he had decided he would stop taking the medications for his high blood-pressure and high cholesterol; he had also stopped taking his anti-depressants, but had maintained the sleeping tablets as these gave him some relief from his overwhelming anxiety and sense of helplessness and hopelessness. 

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Digging Deep

Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians in Britain claims that ‘time spent planting, pruning and propagating can be more powerful than a dose of expensive anti-depressant drugs”. Not surprisingly, the NHS is advising GPs to prescribe gardening rather than pills as a way to help individuals to beat depression. No doubt this shift from medication to horticulture is largely motivated by economics – much cheaper and, whilst not everybody is a horticulturist, most people can engage in some gardening activities – hedge-clipping, mowing the lawn, weeding, planting, watering plants and just the enjoyment of being outdoors. The shift is also due to the ever-increasing tide of evidence that the chemical properties of anti-depressants don’t have any therapeutic effects and that what works is the hope provided – known as the placebo effect (see Irving Kirsch’s book ‘The Emperor’ s New Drugs’ and Joanna Moncrieff’s ‘The Myth of the Chemical Cure’ which was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year 2009).

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The Mahon Watershed!

The Mahon report has revealed corruption that challenges us as a people to reflect on how it is that so many of our leaders emerged into adulthood and secured major positions of responsibility with such a low level of personal maturity and social conscience?  What has struck me regarding the journalistic responses to the Mahon report is the lack of any psycho-social analysis of its alarming findings.

Personal maturity is where you are one with yourself and have a strong sense of your own and others’ innate goodness. In this mature state you are loving, fair, intelligent, just, expansive and creative and duly concerned for the wellbeing of others.  However, when you are not one with yourself, you can be powerfully and frighteningly defensive.  In this insecure place defences such as aggression, control, dominance and narcissism, being judgemental, critical, greedy, manipulative and arrogant, are unconsciously created and mask your true nature.  All defensive behaviours pose a threat to the wellbeing of others; nonetheless, the purpose of unconsciously formed defences is to reduce the experience of threats from other people’s defences.  It is for this reason that human behaviour is paradoxical and, thereby, confusing, particularly for those who are not at one with themselves.  Personal maturity is a responsibility for each person – clearly maturity is on a continuum from very low to very high – it is a responsibility with which we all struggle and one that requires considerable support.

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Suffering is a Path, not a Pathology

Recently I gave a keynote presentation on Finding Compassionate Care at the 19th International Conference on Palliative Care in Dublin.  A key message I wished to communicate was that a clear distinction needs to be made between pain and suffering.  A second message was that in order to truly and fully understand human suffering we need to respond to it symbolically, rather than literally.  Literal interpretations do little to resolve human suffering and typically block the emergence of more creative possibilities to resolving it.

Pain is physiological and, most often, though not always, pathological, whereas suffering is psycho-spiritual, for it inevitably attempts to draw attention to a life unlived, to buried hurts and hidden vulnerabilities and to the presence of powerful protective forces against further emotional and social lessening of one’s presence.  Suffering can also be spiritual because it invites us to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are.  In my seven years in an enclosed Catholic monastery and several times over my lifetime to date I frequently endured “the dark night of the soul” where a deeper meaning to our human existence eluded me.  At this moment in time I feel much closer to the mystery of who we really are.

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