on suffering and healing
Recently the question about what psychological healing is has circled back to me. While maybe not all of us have thought about or had an answer to the question, many have experienced emotional struggles and mental anguish of various sorts. Therefore many of us know what it's like to be mentally unwell. It's tempting to go to the opposite of a troubled state of mind to find the answer about healing and think that healing means having no more emotional pain and feeling pleasant. Not too long ago, I overheard an exchange between two people:
One asked the other, "What would it be like if you weren't actively involved in your inner dramas?"
Without much thinking, the other person answered, "Oh, I'd feel so good and have so much happiness!"
"But life is also full of sorrow and sadness," the first person said, sending the other person into silent thinking.
In the essay Suffering from her book The Way of Woman, Awakening The Perennial Feminine, Helen Luke distinguishes two kinds of experiences we call suffering, "that which is totally unproductive, the neurotic state of meaningless depression, and that which is the essential condition of every step on the way to what C. G. Jung has called individuation." She goes on to point out, "Deeply ingrained in the infantile psyche is the conscious or unconscious assumption that the cure for depression is to replace it with pleasant, happy feelings, whereas the only valid cure for any kind of depression lies in the acceptance of real suffering. To climb out of it any other way is simply a palliative, laying the foundations for the next depression."
So healing seems to have something to do with "the acceptance of real suffering"—what does it look like exactly? Luke puts it in contrast to "subjective emotional reactions" and offers a few examples. When we fear humiliation, we can feel a deadweight of moods and depression. Still, we have the option to pick up the pain of humiliation and carry it without self-justifying or demanding to be freed from it. When we hear tragedies of others, horror and pity might fill us, but staying in this emotional state lifts no burden. However, "the smallest consent to the fierce, sharp pain of objective suffering" may create meaningful impacts. A nurse can react with intense personal emotions when faced with a patient's misery. Suppose they allow these emotions to consume them. In that case, they may eventually learn to repress what they cannot bear and become hardened and unfeeling, or burden the sick one with their concerns. A true nurse, deeply concerned yet unpreoccupied with their emotional dramas, chooses to suffer with the patient and let their experiences change them.
In my work with a young population, their exploration of love and challenges in dating and relationships are where I often see the refusal to suffer and the entanglement in personal emotional reactions. One can talk about their experiences of having an unavailable partner, unrequited love, being rejected, being nervous about the first date, etc. When they refuse to suffer the pain, they go into emotional reactions featured by blaming themselves or others. Some of the common themes of the stories include "I'm not enough," "I'm too much," "they aren't enough," "they're too much." They can feel stuck in the never-ending cycle that compromises their capacity to create new stories and see new versions of themselves. Depressiveness, anxiety, hopelessness, cynicism, and sometimes resentment and hatred ensue. The genuine suffering of the pain from disappointment, rejection, sadness, humiliation, loneliness, and heartaches is kept out of the process. So is the opportunity to add to their life experiences and expand the understanding of their inner landscapes as human beings.
Luke takes it a step further and states that each time a person "exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering," they share "to some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of mankind, in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world." Such a person releases themselves from their personal concerns and inner dramas into a sense of meaning. She believes that even though one may not think consciously in those terms, the transition can be recognized by the disappearance of their pointless moods and depression. Perhaps we can agree that we're moving towards healing as we learn to break out of our personal narrative and start to suffer the pain, sorrow, and darkness of life itself.
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My name is Bingwan Liu. I'm dedicated to the study and practice of understanding our psychology and alleviating mental suffering. I'm a licensed clinical social worker in New York State and a Zen practitioner.