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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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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The Face of Kindness

In the book The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck starts the book with the line: ‘Life is difficult.’ I recall my response to it was that ‘Life is challenging, not always difficult, indeed, sometimes, joyful, mystical and transcendent’. But is it not also a reflection of the reality of human living to say that ‘Everyone suffers.’ As children, we suffer harshness, irritability, aggression, violence, sexual abuse, comparisons, ‘put downs’, emotional abandonment, social ostracisation, bullying, passivity, injustice, being labelled, ignored, exiled, demeaned and lessened.  The responses to these sad experiences is to become fearful, depressed, withdrawn, delusional, illusional, perfectionistic, success and work addicted, addicted to substances, obsessional, compulsive, controlling, rebellious and passive. Unless resolved, we bring our defensive responses to suffering into our adulthood and, sadly, in turn bring suffering to others.

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