(Note: The following blog continues the series begun in October 2012, on the evolving topic, "Suffering, Consolation, and Dreams at Life's Extremities," projected to be completed and revised in late 2013.)
I began this particular series of musings because of the universal centrality of suffering in human experience. Suffering comes in all shapes, sizes, colors; it may arrive on our doorsteps predictably like a letter due, but also most often unexpectedly and -- always -- inconveniently! Suffering is no respecter of age, gender, economic status, religion, or political affiliation. Suffering may be received hospitably or revisited valiantly. It may leave us wiser and better persons or it may leave us devastated and bitter persons.
Suffering prompts the worst and the best in human nature. It may lead to wars as an attempt either to alleviate the suffering or to retaliate for its infliction. But, equally true and more hopefully, suffering calls forth heroic efforts to provide rescue, medical healing, social renewal, and religious consolation.
I began the series with an image of a mother who rushes into the nursery late at night in response to her distraught, crying baby. We do not know why the baby is crying. It may have heard some noise that frightened it, or in the deep, dark silence, it may have become aware of being separated from its parents. Many things could have disrupted the peaceful sleep of the baby. My point in referring to this image, however, was to note the mother's response. And this response too is universally central to the human experience. If the mother -- or father, if that is the case -- is physically and psychologically well, that mother will rush into the nursery, pick up the baby, cradle it in her arms, and soothingly say something like, "It's alright. Don't cry. It's alright."
And, so, I asked,how does the mother make such a statement? After all, this is not only a personal attempt at consoling the baby. The statement is also a kind of confession of faith. The mother, without any particular reference to a sectarian creed, is affirming her trust in some source beyond herself. Regardless of the turmoil within that mother, or her house, or her neighborhood and world, she is daring to offer hope and consolation to the child. It may die within her arms in the next instant, but however brief it may be, here is the great affirmation of human trust in a purposive, redeeming, meaningful universe. We see pictures of Jewish mothers and fathers on their terrifying shuttle to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany still doing all they can to cradle their child, protect it, and offer some consolation. "It's alright."
Well, of course, it is and it isn't. In the sense that unspeakable terror may strike us in the next moment, the consoling words belie the circumstances surrounding the child outside. But, in the sense that the outer world is not the only reality, perhaps the statement of faith, "It's alright," is a profoundly true and appropriate one.
And here we come to the tension of these two different perspectives, a tension I have circled around in this series of musings. Things are not always what they appear to be on the surface and this holds true for our understanding of suffering and consolation. In many different ways, and through specific references, I have made a distinction, on the one hand, between what seems to be true in the outer world but is not true, and on the other hand, what appears to be not true but is.
My references, in summary, included the following:
1. The Brain: I noted the complexity of the brain and its three major systems that have developed over great epochs of time; how the brain makes possible rational thought and feelings, aggression and compassion, linear processing and imaginal experience, deep levels of unconscious functions and pristine conscious patterns for negotiating the complexities of life. With approximately 100 billion neurons at its disposal and with the plasticity that makes ongoing establishment of neural pathways, the brain is a receptacle, a transmitter, a creator, a regulator, a museum and library, a map, and a portal through which communications enter with the potential of coming to consciousness. Noteworthy especially for the field of psychoanalysis is the brain's function as a neurocenter that passes along archetypal patterns, our psychological predispositions that include the best and the worst of human experience. They influence the way we may think, feel, value, sense, intuit, and behave. And, then, those archetypes, acting like strong magnets, draw clusters of psychic experiences around them in the formation of what we may call psychological complexes that are experienced as moods, acting out, irrational opinions, and unaccounted-for anxiety. Any consideration of suffering and our response to it will do well to consider the brain's complexity and capacity to clarify and to deceive.
2. The Collective World-View: My second reference, in summary, is what we might call a kind of group-think, but applied widely to include whole societies. In other words, there is such a thing as psychic contagion that may overtake a group of people who become a mob, or an entire society that becomes a kind of collective. It is not an unusual thing for people to expect conformity in dress, behavior, and values. All our educational institutions walk a fine line between education, socialization, and indoctrination. We cannot avoid this enfoldment within a collective world-view, but when the walls of that enfoldment become too rigid with authoritarian enforcement, then we lose our personal freedoms, our search for truth, our creation of new possibilities by which life is enhanced and carried forward.
Two examples of this, which I have offered, are materialism and empiricism. They belong together within a closed world-view that claims: (1) All reality can finally be reduced to physical substance, and (2) the testing of reality may be done empirically by the employment of one or more of the five senses. As helpful as these perspectives may be in beginning scientific investigation, when they become dogmatically applied they close the door on the search for truth and suppress an openness to life's deeper mysteries.
In short, our world-view determines the way we understand both suffering as well as its alleviation. It is also true that our world-view may in fact be the very source of our disturbance.
3. Religion: In the cases where "religion" refers to those institutionalized organizations engaged in the business of religion, then religion is also another form of the collective. However it is not true nor fair to dismiss religion so easily. To begin, as I stated in an earlier blog, religion may be described as that primal impulse that is archetypal and universal in all human beings who seek meaning for their life and some sense of belonging in this world. This impulse does not necessarily find its destination in organized churches, temples, mosques, cathedrals, or synagogues. The impulse may be satisfied with others or alone, in nature or in culture, in acts of creation or in quiet sitting, in apolitical communities, or in massive social movements and organizations.
However, that same impulse may indeed come to focus in those institutions such as we see in the world's major religions. With their communal rituals and activities, sacred texts, venerable founders, moral codes, financial and personal support of facilities for healing, education, and community development, traditions, belief systems, and God-images, these institutions may become conservative bastions of toxic ideology that encourages either retreat from the world or aggressive battle with all non-believers. But the institutions may also become true healing centers, agents for social justice, life-long support systems through all the stages of development from birth through death, depositories of the rich heritage of humankind, and portals for persons working to glimpse the multi-layered Reality within us and outside us that inspires meaning, trust, and hope.
The brain, the collective world-view, religion: Within these three containers, I have condensed the detailed descriptions of previous blogs. I intended for them to serve as a backdrop for my theme of suffering. It is against this backdrop that I have positioned the mother who consoles her crying baby with the "statement of faith," "It's alright." In her and through her, we see deeply into our ancestral and present life -- how we suffer and how we find consolation, how we endure and what our prospects may be for the future.
How we endure and the nature of those prospects for our future will be my topic next month when I return once again to look at that ancient text on suffering that has informed and consoled generations before us