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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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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Creating a Better Environment

Psychology touches every aspect of human behaviour – social, educational, economic, political, philosophical, scientific media, religious. We are psychological beings and we operate out from individual interior worlds creatively constructed in response to what we encounter in the outside worlds of family, community, wider society, nationally and internationally. Acknowledgement of the reality that all words and actions arise from each person’s interior world and that, ultimately, responsibility lies with the individual, is a pill that is difficult to swallow in a culture where judgement and criticism is more common than compassion and understanding. Again, my spiritual mentor, John O Donohue, puts it so well – ‘the process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, discovery. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in order to reduce the pain.’

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The Emergence of Spring

Spring – the time of teeming possibilities – does not happen all at once – it slowly reveals its mantle of leaf, flower, colour, fertility, song and passion. So it is for us – our awakening to our true nature doesn’t happen all at once ….. we become. It can take a long time. Sometimes we can get stuck in the dark and cold of the winter of our discontent and, sadly, not emerge into the warmth and aliveness of Spring.

Spring beckons us with its emergence, growth, possibilities, beauty, freshness and, particularly, beginnings and newness. In his final book, Benedictus, the poet and mystic, John O Donohue, writes insightfully on beginnings:

                  “Sometimes the greatest challenge is to actually begin; there is something deep in us that conspires to remain within safe boundaries, to stay the same.”

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Conversation Pieces

Whilst we can discover many things about ourselves by listening in to our conversations with others, we can just as powerfully become conscious of hidden aspects of ourselves by tuning into our inner conversations with ourselves.

Examples of some of the things we say to others are:

  • ‘You never listen’
  • ‘You’re never there when I need you’
  • ‘You only think about yourself’
  • ‘You’re impossible to talk to’
  • ‘You’re sorry you ever got involved with me’
  • ‘You’re perpetually late’
  • ‘You think you know it all’
  • ‘You have no feelings’
  • ‘You make me so angry’

The messages quoted above are known as projections – messages about yourself that you unconsciously put over on others. When you come to a realisation that everything you say is about yourself and you replace the ‘you’ with an ‘I’ in the above messages, you then consciously see what you are saying about or want from another is what you need to say or give to yourself; the messages now change to:

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