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The positive side of suffering

When I was in my doctoral programme, Jay Uomoto, who was at that time the clinical director and neuropsychologist of the Acquired Brain Injury Program at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, came in order to candidate for a possible faculty position.

I remember what an accomplished presenter he seemed to me to be. His delivery in one of our class sessions struck me as significant, and so I obtained permission from him to publish what he had said in an online professional journal I was editing at the time.

Jay pointed to a tension between psychotherapy on the one hand and care of the soul on the other when he said, “Herein is the tension: soul care may focus on, even require suffering as a rite of passage and growth, yet this idea may be antithetical to what may be seen as the primary directive of psychotherapy and of health care in general. Much of what we understand to be at the core of the helping professions harkens back to the original oaths of medicine, as embodied by the Hippocratic tradition: Benefit the patient and do no harm.

“In psychotherapy, our patients and clients most often come to us with the intent of alleviating some psychological malady, correcting some interpersonal dysfunction, healing the wounds of trauma, reconciling ailing relationships, lifting mood, reducing anxiety, preventing excess disability, improving functional activities of daily living, removing guilt and shame, and a laundry list of other presenting concerns. The psychotherapist who follows the Hippocratic Oath no differently than a physician is bound to heal and cure their patient's illnesses. Ethicists call this principle beneficence. The relief of suffering is central to this principle. In soul care, the principle of beneficence may take on a different look and demeanour. Beneficence may require allowing one's suffering to continue for the goal of spiritual deepening.”

I have been thinking on how so much of character-building growth depends on being stretched and challenged by people and events in our lives and how these phases of growth are not very much fun. If they do not require enduring pain and loss, they require patience that comes from having to wait.

Isaiah the Prophet wrote, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God?' Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” (Isaiah 40: 27-31)

The writer of the letter to the Hebrew Christians wrote, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons, for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?... All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Hebrews 12:5b-11).

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4).

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone is to give him or her a limit, because it becomes a stone wall against which they can bash their heads, striving and straining to get life to conform to the way they think it should be. Such an approach to living ultimately fails, because life is not like any of us thinks it should be. That is not reality. Most people live in the fantasy of what “it” is, and they do various things to reinforce that fantasy, getting others to validate them or tearing down and shredding to pieces any suggestion to the contrary. I see this approach constantly in my practice of psychotherapy, and if I'm honest, I see it staring back at me in the morning when I shave. The kindest thing someone can do is to identify the limits of reality so that another person can get on with the business of learning to live within those limits.

And that is a matter of discipline self-discipline. We internalise the things we learn from others, the training we have received. We remember the struggle to understand and the difficulty of mastering new skills. We work through our self-concepts as we have to face our finite limits, but we also gain a more realistic view of our gifts, strengths, and abilities.

Often when people come to me and they are suffering, the human being in me would like to lift their burden and relieve their suffering.

The elimination of suffering is an admirable aspiration and part of the core of one of the major religions in the world Buddhism. Yet, there is a positive side to suffering. A world without suffering would be a common, washed-out scene with no movement and no growth. No. I believe the balance is that balance struck by Jesus when He said, “I will come to you; I will not leave you alone”.

This is often the most salient and meaningful thing about psychotherapy as well the meaningful presence of the therapist who tracks with the client through his or her struggle, and who offers support to the struggling soul.

Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…” and He does so by His mere presence, so that a person might find a way through his or her struggles, trials, temptations, challenges, afflictions, and various phases of growth.

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Published March 08, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated March 07, 2011 at 3:35 pm)

The positive side of suffering

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