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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Falling In and Out of Love

In the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke it appears that ‘for one human being to love another is the most difficult of all tasks’, and this is true for parents and children, friend and friend, lover and lover and husband and wife. For the purposes of Valentine’s Day I am going to focus on adult relationships. In the USA, 60 per cent of marriages breakdown and, poignantly and significantly, 80 per cent of second marriages end unhappily. Those statistics do not take into account the high percentage of intact unhappy marriages. It is a real conundrum that if, on the one hand, love is the greatest power on earth – the force that sustains human life – how, on the other hand, is it that many relationships are a near-certain prescription for unbelievable pain and emotional devastation?

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A Breakthrough in Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Research in University College, Cork has provided evidence that links the extremely distressing and embarrassing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to extreme stress in childhood. Up to now, medical doctors had found no obvious organic cause for this painful and debilitating condition. The researchers, Dr. John Cryan and Professor Ted Dinan found that individuals with the condition reported having a lot of stress in their lives and had experienced highly stressful events during childhood. Without going into the biochemical complexities of their research, it was found that higher glutamate (an essential protein) in the spinal cord may be contributing to the emergence of severe abdominal pain as reported by persons with IBS. The researchers believe that the current expensive medication is not very effective due to the fact that it does not target the glutamate transporter specifically. They are determined to develop a new drug that will be specific to the physical pain symptoms of the condition.

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