“Many people think that the point in life is to solve their problems and be happy. But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of problems. Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life.” – Thomas Moore
Freud suggested that the mind seeks pleasure and avoids pain as a key motivator of human nature. Psychology has moved on from this reductive and perhaps cynical evaluation of humanity, but popular perceptions have not. I’m going to suggest that following pleasure and avoiding pain is destructive. I prefer Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation, of becoming all we can be, as a more fundamental drive in our human nature. I see it in my work as a therapist time and again, typified by the question “what’s the point?”. That’s a question our inevitable suffering brings us to ask.
Western science and medicine has enabled us to insulate ourselves against physical pain to some extent. Still there is illness, death and emotional pain that we cannot escape, no matter how carefully we juice, exercise and plan our finances. The expectation of constant pleasure and stimulus can easily lead to denial of pain and suffering, often in the form of addiction. Yet the need for suffering to enable us to become more remains: a shadow of this is felt by athletes who train beyond the pain barrier in order to temper their body and mind for excellence. It is when suffering is thrust upon us that we are more likely to flee and protect ourselves from it.
It may be that to accept and let suffering transform us will lead to a deeper and more soulful way of living. When I cease numbing myself from what is difficult in life, I find that it moves and changes me and somehow I feel more real and solid. It is not that I like or enjoy suffering or seek it out; rather I stay with it and let it move through me. Cry if I need to cry. Take care of myself in ways that nourish rather than numb. Take the attitude that it will pass and that when it has passed I will be different. I try to remember that suffering cannot be avoided in life, so I might let it change me, as heat and a blacksmith’s hammer transforms metal upon the anvil.
Suffering may be overwhelming and may break us, but at that point we can become new. However, I’m not advocating seeking suffering or becoming attached to that. Being stuck in suffering is no more helpful that avoiding it. I see people get stuck when they avoid the painful changes suffering brings. In this circumstance it is helpful to understand that suffering and pain offer the opportunity for change, if we can accept those feelings and wonder about the meaning of the suffering for ourselves. None of this is nice, but it may be necessary and somehow it helps.
“Do you not see, how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? …call the world if you please ‘The Vale of Soul Making’.” – John Keats