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Archive for April 15th, 2019

‘Greed is Good’

The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 184)

This is the second of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May at a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

The Role of Suffering in Personal Growth

After the first more general post on this issue, this one brings me onto a more detailed consideration of Sal Mendaglio’s book about Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD).

I have to own up. I’ve not quite finished the book yet and it is rather uneven. Some of the chapters are excellent while others leave too many gaps in the thinking to do full justice to the aspect of his theory they are tackling. However, I am already convinced that this approach to the human predicament has a huge amount to offer – not least on the issue of suffering and a related issue, sacrifice.

I will have to summarise fairly brutally here if I am to avoid seriously over-inflating this series of posts.

Rather as in the British Psychological Society (BPS) article I quoted from last time, Dabrowski sees suffering as triggering a process that can move in either of two directions. In his terms, it can lead us either to negative disintegration, regression to ineffective ways of being, and even to possible illness, or to a positive disintegration, an unusual take on the world, conducive to higher development and growth.

Where he differs from the BPS article is in the way he privileges suffering, even when it is apparently close to mental illness, as a necessary and powerful means of personal and moral development. This is all closely allied to his model of human potential which is hierarchical. It hypothesises that there are levels which rise from the lowest, least conscious and least developed (biological & social), through the next highest level which is somewhat more conscious and conflicted but still too automated and blindly conformist, via two higher levels of inner conflict which are more autonomous, consciously choosing higher rather than lower values, to level five, where the highest ideals the person can envisage are chosen and enacted regardless of social disapproval and discouragement.

The diagram above is a very crude approximation of his model just to convey a general sense of it. Mendaglio explains that Level I (page 35):

. . . . is a cohesive mental organisation dedicated to gratifying an individual’s biological instincts, drives and needs, including social needs.

The social aspect is not ultimately beneficial (page 36):

. . . . some individuals characterised by primary integration are overly socialised; their way of being in the world is highly socially conforming.

Level II involves a challenge to this comfortable conformity which makes it distinctly uncomfortable (page 37):

Dabrowski postulated that when crises have the effect of loosening the integrated mental organisation of individuals, they have limited choices. Individuals return to the previous integrated state or they move to the next level. Remaining in Level II may lead to bad consequences such as psychoses or suicide.

At Level III (page 38):

Inner conflict arises from the individual’s growing awareness of the way personal and social phenomena ought to be is discrepant with the way they are. The ideal-real discrepancy intensifies as the individual becomes increasingly self-aware and aware of societal values.

Without the suffering that spurs a person to abandon lower levels of integration which involve biological urges and social conformity, there would be no growth to start with, and without the determination to pursue the higher path in spite of the suffering it can involve, there would be no final peace of mind as the person lives out their highest values.

When a person reaches Level IV something Dabrowski calls the ‘third factor’ comes into play (page 26):

. . . . It is described as the force by which individuals become more self-determined, controlling their behaviour through their inner voices and values.

Level IV is a distinct leap forward (page 38):

Whereas Level III is dominated by disintegrating dynamisms, Level IV sees the rise of developmental dynamisms such as autonomy, authenticity, self-education and autopsychotherapy, and the third factor. Under the direction of the third factor, individuals deliberately select higher values and courses of action, abandoning lower ones. In addition, individuals develop a strong sense of responsibility for self and others.

The diagonal line on the top surface of the diagram is meant to represent the idea that as dissolving dynamisms fade, developmental ones increase in power.

In Dabrowski’s model at Level V (page 39):

[individuals] conduct their lives by enacting the personality ideal, whereby behaviour is directed by their constructive hierarchy of values. Virtually no inner conflict is experienced, since the lower forms of motivation have been destroyed, and replaced by the higher forms of empathy, autonomy, and authenticity.

Chrysalis from Music of Nature

Where suffering can take us if we let it

There are certain issues to clarify here. For example, in Chapter 3 of the book, Piechowski makes an important point (page 75):

I feel that the Dabrowski extolled the virtues of inner conflict perhaps too much, as he believed in the ennobling value of suffering but failed to mention that the ennobling is possible only if one accepts the suffering as something to grow through. Acceptance is essential.

It may be possible in a later sequence of posts to explore the parallels and differences between this view and the position of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach already explored in previous posts (see links) where the need to face pain in order to enact one’s values is central, but there seems little emphasis if any upon suffering as a primary spur. It may also be appropriate to bring in ideas from Jenny Wade‘s book ‘Changes of Mind‘ which also sees an hierarchical structure to our personality development. But more of that eventually maybe.

Tillier in Chapter 5 (page 119) quotes passages of great importance from Dabrowski’s own writing:

‘Crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity, and personality development’ . . . . And: ‘Every authentic creative process consists of “loosening”, “splitting” or “smashing” the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with destruction and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering, and distress.’

This resonates with the view of spiritual traditions, including that of the Baha’i Faith, which place great emphasis upon the crucial importance of crises and ‘tests’ and the way we deal with them (Arabic Hidden Words: nos. 18 & 51):

O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

At the end of this path lies the highest development of the human personality. There are examples given of people who seem to have achieved this. The degree of empathy they have realised seems to make possible supreme acts of self-sacrifice, for example (page 99):

Janusz Korczak, physician, writer, and above all, educator. He was Polish and of Jewish origin. When the decision was made in the Second World War to burn in the crematorium at Treblinka all the children attending his school, he decided to go with them even though he had received an amnesty from the Nazis. . . . . The decision arose from the compassion and love he had for the children and his fidelity for them.

Or (pages 134-135):

Henri Bergson was born in France in 1859 and lived and taught there all his life. When, after the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government introduced anti-Semitic measures based on the Nazi model, it was proposed, because of Bergson’s international reputation, that he be exempted from them. He refused to be treated differently, resigned his various honours, and, although at that time an enfeebled old man who had to be supported while standing in line, registered with the other Jews.

Part of this empathy seems to have derived, at least in some instances, from a strong sense of unity with all creation. Tillier quotes the Peace Pilgrim (page 62):

. . . . In the midst of the struggle came a wonderful mountain-top experience, and for the first time I knew what inner peace was like. I felt oneness – oneness with all my fellow human beings, oneness with all of creation. I have never felt really separate since.

Universal Values


There is a tricky issue lying behind this. Dabrowski places great importance on the value of autonomy. Suffering, in his view, spurs a person to discover what their highest values are in order to live by them. He also believes there are universal values and that some people, as a result of suffering, will autonomously choose to work towards these values. He is contemptuous of any education system that creates conformity. He trusts that we can and will choose these universal values, rather than be dogmatically forced towards them. Mróz explains this succinctly (page 231):

Dabrowski . . . . assumes the existence of absolute values prior to their experience by the individual. These values are only discovered in the process of disintegration and the discovery is associated with the achievement of advanced levels of development. . . . . . The values consciously selected and adopted by the individual . . . . become the building material for the personality ideal formed at these levels.

This raises various questions. A relativist, which Dabrowski is not, will ask, “Are there really any absolute values?” Someone with a strong sense that there are, if (s)he feels (s)he knows exactly what they are, might question whether it is safe to leave anyone free to decide for themselves what these values might be.

Interestingly, the Bahá’í Faith offers a way past this dilemma. On the one hand, it insists that people should be left free to investigate reality for themselves and come to their own conclusions. At the same time, it explains that, at this stage of human development, we must recognise the essential oneness of all humanity and the principles that can be derived from that recognition. If we do not, we risk taking, to paraphrase the Porter in Macbeth, ‘the primrose way to the . . . bonfire’ that destroys our whole civilisation. The principles we need to take on board include the detailed operational definitions of universal compassion and universal justice to be found in the Bahá’í Writings (see links to get started on that one!). So we can feel free, if we are so minded, to choose the destruction of all that mankind has created – no pressure there then.

Also this position leaves open the intriguing possibility that at a higher stage of human development we will be able to grasp even higher values. This in a way may be inherent in the Bahá’í concept of ‘progressive revelation.’

In the next post I will explore some further implications of Dabrowski’s view of suffering.

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