Three Things I've Learned about Psychological Suffering
“Every psychic advance of man arises from the suffering of the soul.”
Carl Jung, CW 11, Par. 497
As it often happens when I write about a painful or controversial issue, I lost two e-mail subscribers after WordPress published my last post on death. Yet within five days four new ones signed on! I won’t pretend I don’t suffer when a subscriber leaves. I do. (By the way, I never know their names. I only know when the numbers on my stats change.) But it’s getting easier; partly because I almost always gain new subscribers after the same posts.
Plus, my grandchildren are giving me a new perspective on this kind of suffering. Since the current school year started last month I’ve watched their struggles to adjust to new classes that separate them from old friends. Yet they’re already making new ones. What I’m realizing is that their experiences parallel mine. Losses are inevitable for every growing thing.
So I won’t apologize for writing about suffering. I’m not equipped to comment on physical suffering or clinical depression, so these are my thoughts about the normal psychological suffering everyone experiences. The young adult’s post-school struggles to find him/herself, connect with a life partner, and find satisfying, meaningful work. The unforeseen accidents or losses of a home, job, friend, partner, child or other beloved family member. The existential angst some souls suffer at midlife. The daunting challenges of aging.
Here’s what personal experience has taught me about everyday psychological suffering.
First, it comes to all of us. Many people’s first response to serious suffering is to think something like, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?” But, as a believer in the omnipotence of Love, I don’t see suffering coming from a judgmental, vengeful God. I see it as a natural consequence of being alive! You live; you die. You win; you lose. Good things happen; bad things happen. Sometimes you’re happy; sometimes you’re sad. Life comes with a full range of emotions: not just pleasure, but pain too. That’s just the way Life is, and wishful thinking cannot change it.
For the Tibetans of northern India who are taught at an early age to accept the fact of suffering (as my friend, Elaine Mansfield, tells me), this knowledge is liberating. It means I don’t have to take suffering personally. This frees me from misplaced guilt and self-blame. Nor do I have to conform to my tribe’s or religion’s restrictive standards and beliefs. If I’m going to suffer anyway, I might as well do it in service to fueling my light instead of hiding it.
Second, suffering can be our worst enemy. Like a devil who promises eternal happiness, it whispers, “Run away! Escape! You don’t need to put up with this.” The problem with escape mechanisms is that they only compound our suffering. Immature egos don’t know that the only way to avoid future suffering is to deal with current suffering, so most of us are extremely vulnerable to this kind of dead-end thinking.
And suffering whispers, “This is intolerable. Do something. Quick!” But impulsive behavior erodes the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. It diminishes our ability to accept responsibility for our part in our suffering, and causes unnecessary pain for us and those we blame.
The third thing I’ve learned is that psychological suffering can also be our best friend. Like a good teacher it gives us many opportunities to learn more about ourselves, and self-knowledge always leads to wisdom.
Like a loving inner Magician who sees the bigger picture of our life and passionately wants to help us thrive, suffering offers us a magic wand: the power of choice! But this gift comes with a stipulation: We are the only ones who can choose to transform our intolerable situation, and the only way we can make this happen is by tolerating the tension until the solution arrives in its own time. When it does, it is accompanied by a deepened spirituality, an expanding awareness of the purpose and meaning of our lives, and a strengthened ego with the power to make healthier choices.
Life comes with realities an immature ego can’t understand. But trusting Life to guide us through our suffering without attempting to escape or control it can transform us into maturing conscious beings.