Monday, September 10, 2007

How we learn from suffering

Loved this book review from TIME's columnist The Contrarian: John Cloud, When Sadness Is a Good Thing. He's commenting on the book The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.

The point of the book, apparently, is that not all sadness is sickness. Being sad is sometimes the natural, logical, rational response to circumstances. And, it serves the purpose of attracting support and causing us to change. (They're also saying then that medicating sadness away when we need to learn from it might be harmful.)

Here's an excerpt from the article:

[T]he authors also note that "loss responses are part of our biological heritage." Nonhuman primates separated from sexual partners or peers have physiological responses that correlate with sadness, including higher levels of certain hormones. Human infants express despair to evoke sympathy from others. These sadness responses suggest sorrow is genetic and that it is useful for attracting social support, protecting us from aggressors and teaching us that whatever prompted the sadness—say, getting fired because you were always late to work—is behavior to be avoided. This is a brutal economic approach to the mind, but it makes sense: we are sometimes meant to suffer emotional pain so that we will make better choices.

The last sentence made me do a quick study of Mary Baker Eddy's use of the word "suffering" in Science and Health. I found this fascinating, a much richer study than I expected when I typed the word into Concord. Those of you who are familiar with MBE's writings might be reminded of certain passages, as I was, but there were many more surprising ones where I hadn't been aware the word was there. Here's just a partial selection:

To cause suffering as the result of sin, is the means of destroying sin. Every supposed pleasure in sin will furnish more than its equivalent of pain, until belief in material life and sin is destroyed. p. 6

Waking to Christ's demand, mortals experience suffering. This causes them, even as drowning men, to make vigorous efforts to save themselves; and through Christ's precious love these efforts are crowned with success. p. 22

Better the suffering which awakens mortal mind from its fleshly dream, than the false pleasures which tend to perpetuate this dream. p. 196

Entire immunity from the belief in sin, suffering, and death may not be reached at this period, but we may look for an abatement of these evils; and this scientific beginning is in the right direction. p. 219

Every sensuous pleasure or pain is self-destroyed through suffering. p. 224

Mortals move onward towards good or evil as time glides on. If mortals are not progressive, past failures will be repeated until all wrong work is effaced or rectified. If at present satisfied with wrong-doing, we must learn to loathe it. If at present content with idleness, we must become dissatisfied with it. Remember that mankind must sooner or later, either by suffering or by Science, be convinced of the error that is to be overcome. p. 240

Progress is born of experience. It is the ripening of mortal man, through which the mortal is dropped for the immortal. Either here or hereafter, suffering or Science must destroy all illusions regarding life and mind, and regenerate material sense and self. The old man with his deeds must be put off. p. 296

The poor suffering heart needs its rightful nutriment, such as peace, patience in tribulation, and a priceless sense of the dear Father's loving-kindness. p. 365

If grief causes suffering, convince the sufferer that affliction is often the source of joy, and that he should rejoice always in ever-present Love. p. 377

Constant toil, deprivations, exposures, and all untoward conditions, if without sin, can be experienced without suffering. Whatever it is your duty to do, you can do without harm to yourself. p. 385

A blundering despatch, mistakenly announcing the death of a friend, occasions the same grief that the friend's real death would bring. You think that your anguish is occasioned by your loss. Another despatch, correcting the mistake, heals your grief, and you learn that your suffering was merely the result of your belief. Thus it is with all sorrow, sickness, and death. You will learn at length that there is no cause for grief, and divine wisdom will then be understood. Error, not Truth, produces all the suffering on earth. p. 386

Instead of blind and calm submission to the incipient or advanced stages of disease, rise in rebellion against them. Banish the belief that you can possibly entertain a single intruding pain which cannot be ruled out by the might of Mind, and in this way you can prevent the development of pain in the body. No law of God hinders this result. It is error to suffer for aught but your own sins. Christ, or Truth, will destroy all other supposed suffering, and real suffering for your own sins will cease in proportion as the sin ceases. p. 391

The sick unconsciously argue for suffering, instead of against it. They admit its reality, whereas they should deny it. p. 394

Suffering is no less a mental condition than is enjoyment. You cause bodily sufferings and increase them by admitting their reality and continuance, as directly as you enhance your joys by believing them to be real and continuous. When an accident happens, you think or exclaim, "I am hurt!" Your thought is more powerful than your words, more powerful than the accident itself, to make the injury real. p. 397

If a man is an inebriate, a slave to tobacco, or the special servant of any one of the myriad forms of sin, meet and destroy these errors with the truth of being, — by exhibiting to the wrong-doer the suffering which his submission to such habits brings, and by convincing him that there is no real pleasure in false appetites. p. 404

Resist evil — error of every sort — and it will flee from you. Error is opposed to Life. We can, and ultimately shall, so rise as to avail ourselves in every direction of the supremacy of Truth over error, Life over death, and good over evil, and this growth will go on until we arrive at the fulness of God's idea, and no more fear that we shall be sick and die. Inharmony of any kind involves weakness and suffering, — a loss of control over the body. p. 406

In some way, sooner or later, all must rise superior to materiality, and suffering is oft the divine agent in this elevation. p. 444

The very circumstance, which your suffering sense deems wrathful and afflictive, Love can make an angel entertained unawares. p. 574

Interesting, isn't it, that MBE weaves a discussion of suffering throughout these many "CS Top 40" passages? I didn't realize she addressed it so thoroughly. It seems that she's saying there's two kinds: appropriate suffering for mistakes (sins) to get us to stop doing them, and fallacious suffering for circumstances where we think something bad happened but it actually didn't.

This informs my response to the suffering I'm aware of in the world. For example, friends who suffer due to indulgence in unhealthy activities must get my unconditional love, but also wise words on ceasing those activities when I can say them without judgment. Loved ones who suffer because of loss or illness must be comforted with all the empathy I have to offer, but also reassurance that these experiences are not the final word.

To circle back to the TIME article and the book, suffering is not therefore to be avoided at all costs. It's to be embraced for the lesson it brings, either to destroy a desire for sin or to correct a belief in sickness. Lessons learned reduce suffering, and keep it from coming ever again.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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At 9/10/2007 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Kim said...

brilliant, just brilliant! I think this discussion also helps to alleviate the shame some people feel when they have suffered (feeling that they should have healed the situation far more quikly than they are doing).

At 9/10/2007 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Love all the passages, and the summation! As Kim indicates in her comment, it is comforting to think of suffering in this way. I sometimes wonder - and test myself with this question - how often people forgo the opportunity for healing from spiritual growth just to get rid of the discoomfort. A lot of these quotes would help us see through that and reaally think about the root problem - and so should find healing faster that way. Thanks!

At 9/11/2007 11:48:00 AM, Anonymous Sandy said...

Thanks for the extensive set of references on suffering. I have long worked to understand the reasons for it and have come to appreciate the growth it often stimulates. I find comfort in Mrs. Eddy's observation about sadness on page 66, line 30 of S&H:

"Sorrow has its reward. It never leaves us where it found us."

Thanks for the thoughtful posting, Laura.


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