Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Recently, I came across a quote from Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst: “Neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.”
It strikes me as an important thing for remember. Most of us spend so much time and energy avoiding all suffering. Society tells us that suffering of any kind is not a good thing.
Part of it, I think, is that we don’t like to be vulnerable. All around us, we are told that we need to be in control, that we have to look like we’re doing well. Vulnerability is scary, and suffering makes us vulnerable.
But the truth is that life is going to hurt. To be alive is to hurt. Now I don’t go out seeking pain. That’s not a healthy thing. But I must acknowledge that there is going to be pain in my life.
At some level, I’m grateful for the pain. In many cases, it serves as a warning system. If I put my hand on a hot stove top, the pain tells me to lift my hand as quickly as possible so that I can avoid real damage to my skin and the underlying tissue.
To use another example, I recently fell on the ice underneath the snow. I didn’t hurt myself too badly, but I have a sore shoulder which, with some tender care, will soon heal. The pain alerts me that I need to take it a little easier.
We understand that kind of physical pain quite readily. But what do we do with the pain of chronic diseases?
I have a friend who suffers from a painful, chronic disease for which there is no treatment. She could easily just give up. She could retreat to bed, and lie there all day, facing each day with dread.
But she doesn’t. She takes what medication is available so she can manage the symptoms and ease the pain a little bit. She makes sure to get out and be with other people. She tries to be as helpful with other people as she can be. She absolutely hates to complain and hates it when other people treat her differently because of her condition.
Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, says that he often tells his students, “One of the secrets of mental health is learning how to suffer well.”
It seems to me that my friend has learned to cope with her illness and her pain in a healthy and gentle way. She has learned to suffer well.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not in the least suggesting that we ought to seek suffering. Not at all.
But it is nevertheless true that life is going to hurt. We can’t avoid it, no matter how hard we try. And while we can understand the necessity of some physical suffering quite easily, it’s much more difficult to understand mental suffering.
I’ve mentioned previously in these columns that about 18 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. At the time, it seemed I was wrapped in a neverending darkness. Every day, I woke up thinking I was about to “go under”. I lost any sense of control in my life. It was a scary and terrible place to be.
And, of course, I did everything I could to try and avoid the pain. I kept it to myself. I refused to acknowledge what was happening, and lived in a state of denial. I self–medicated with scotch. I avoided other people. I worked harder and harder, and spent longer hours at work. I told myself that if I weren’t such a terrible, lazy, incompetent so–and–so, I’d get on top of this.
And then I learned that everything I was doing was exactly the wrong thing to do. I couldn’t avoid the pain I was experiencing. I couldn’t deal with it by myself. I covered over the pain of some things in my life, and the result was a complete breakdown.
To use Jung’s language, my life became neurotic because I tried to avoid suffering. The net result was that the suffering increased.
I developed these neurotic coping mechanisms to try and avoid any kind of suffering. I didn’t want to confess that I needed help. I didn’t want to admit that I was weak. I didn’t want to feel the sting of disappointment in myself. I didn’t want to admit that I was failing.
So I self-medicated. I blamed others. I tried to distract myself. I avoided. I pretended.
And I increased my suffering.
Life hurt, I hurt, and I panicked.
It would have been healthier if I just let it hurt. I know how hard that sounds. But one of the great gifts of my depression and the therapy I entered at the time was to understand that life is going to hurt, and there’s no need to panic. We can’t avoid the hurt.
So my gentle encouragement to you is this: Life is going to hurt; don’t panic. Just let it hurt. Talk to someone who loves you. Seek help if you need it.
When I tried to avoid my hurt, I stopped living. The gift I received was that I began to learn to suffer well.
And I am grateful.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook