Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. What man considers to be evil turns often to be a cause of infinite blessings.
Sometimes an issue keeps poking you harder and harder until you simply can’t ignore it anymore. Suffering is one such issue for me at the moment. I did a couple of blog posts on the topic fairly recently and felt I had laid it to rest, if not for good, at least for a very long time. No such luck apparently. I kept producing poems that were locked into its gravitational field. The news keeps thrusting it before our eyes. I began to realise it was not finished with me yet even if I thought that, for my part, I had completely done with it.
Just before I made a recent visit to the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and at Bahji, I started a series of blog posts on mental health related issues. A comment was made on one of them:
. . . . two things that have encouraged me to see . . . mental suffering as growth have been developing a deeper spirituality, and learning about a theory of personal growth developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist/psychologist, known as the “Theory of Positive Disintegration.”
I have to admit I’d never heard of Dabrowski but I’ve learned to catch at the hints life gives when I manage to spot them and I spotted this one. It was the first strong hint of something new in 20th century thinking, a different angle on the issue, and fortunately I snatched at it and obtained a book about his Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).
I began reading it on the plane out, continued reading it in the Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb after my prayers, and carried on reading it in the plane home. Conversations in the Pilgrim House explored the issue of suffering and some of his ideas. Even BBC iPlayer programmes I was watching on the plane out rubbed my nose in the possible value of suffering.
I heard Dave Davies of the Kinks, in Kinkdom Come, stating at 58 minutes in: ‘If there hadn’t been bad times I might not have have got interested in spiritual things.’
So, here I am blogging about it yet again.
The Effects of Suffering
Perhaps the best place to start is with a recent article in ‘The Psychologist.’ To my surprise, when I got home I found that the latest issue contains an article by Stephen Joseph about the psychology of post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shatter lives, it is true, but for some it seems rather to be an opportunity for growth. He draws an interesting distinction between two kinds of reaction to trauma (page 817):
Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.
Work has begun on teasing out what specific factors might be involved in creating this difference in approach (ibid):
Research shows that greater post-traumatic growth is associated with: personality factors, such as emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, optimism and self-esteem; ways of coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, seeking social support, turning to religion, problem solving; and social support factors (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).
I wasn’t pleased to see that introversion is not included in the list of factors associated with ‘greater post-traumatic growth’ though it’s good to see that ‘turning to religion’ is definitely one. I remain quietly confident that the positive value of introversion will finally be recognised.
Joseph concludes (ibid):
Psychologists are beginning to realise that post-traumatic stress following trauma is not always a sign of disorder. Instead, post-traumatic stress can signal that the person is going through a normal and natural emotional struggle to rebuild their lives and make sense of what has befallen them. Sadly it often takes a tragic event in our lives before we make such changes. Survivors have much to teach those of us who haven’t experienced such traumas about how to live.
Suffering is not all bad
He argues, in the first part of this book, that most of us are to all intents of purposes asleep, or more accurately in a trance (page 106):
Each of us is in a profound trance, consensus consciousness, the state of partly suspended animation, stupor, of inability to function at our maximum level. Automatised and conditioned patterns of perception, thinking, feeling, and behaving dominate our lives.
He discussed ways of breaking this trance. Self-observation is a key tool. In describing its usefulness he also brings in a crucial insight (page 192):
Self observation is to be practised just as devotedly when you are suffering as when you are happy. Not because you hope that self observation may eventually diminish your sufferings – although it will have that effect – but because you have committed yourself to searching for the truth of whatever is, regardless of your preferences or fears. Indeed, suffering often turns out to be one of your best allies once you have committed yourself to awakening, for it may shock you into seeing aspects of yourself and your world you might never notice otherwise.
Dabrowski’s position, though, is far more complex than this, placing suffering in the context of a whole theory of personality development. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for the next post. For now it is perhaps useful simply to note how Dabrowski’s idea of suffering seems closely related to Tart’s concept of a trance breaker. Sam Mendaglio, in the book he edited on the subject of TPD, writes (page 23):
Intense negative emotions and moods, typically regarded as impediments to growth and development, actually set the stage for advanced development by their disintegrating power. Intensely negative affective experiences begin the process of loosening a tightly integrated mental organisation. Though painful to individuals, negative emotions – the hallmark of inner conflict – allow people to achieve a more advanced level of human development.
His definition of what he feels lies at the end of this path through pain is of intense interest and concern to anyone seeking to gain support for a spiritual perspective on human suffering (page 23):
A developed human being is characterised by such traits as autonomy, authenticity, and altruism.
That seems as good a place as any to pause for now until the next time.