Sunday, July 6, 2014

Journal of a Soul 60

Dealing with Pain

There are no easy answers to any of the big questions.  Indeed, as I have pointed out many times in these posts we engage in good philosophy when we set about questioning shallow solutions, indeed when we suspect easy answers as not alone being the easy way out but to be a simplistic twisting of and an undermining of the truth.  Life teaches us more than "is dreamt of in our philosophy," as Hamlet perspicaciously pointed out to his university friend Horatio.  In searching for meaning, life more often than not forces us away from neat cerebral and cognitive answers to our problems and throws us in at the deep end to either sink or swim in the murky waters of its mystery.

A Mystery to be Lived not a Problem to be Solved

Clontarf, Dublin, Sat 6 July, 2014
When I studied philosophy and theology back in the late 1970s the topic I chose for my 4th Year thesis was "The Mystery of Evil," and the title of this section of my post is one gem of insight I came up with from my reading.  Another gem of a quotation I vividly recall reading was one which goes, "a mystery is not a wall against which we bang our heads, but rather an ocean into which we plunge."  Life teaches us most assuredly, and bit by inevitable bit it knocks the corners off our initial egotistical take on life, chastens our hubris, challenges our certainties and sends us deep into our spiritual and cultural reserves as human beings simply to keep going.  If we are reasonably astute and wise human beings we will learn from our mistakes and from the problems and pains life throws our way so that when we reach twenty years at our job we will have twenty years experience, not one year multiplied 20 times.  Likewise with life - hopefully I have 56 years of cumulative wisdom and not just a few years multiplied by a fairly big factor.  Hopefully, we all will have grown and learnt and deepened and heightened our experience of life and reflected on its significance and meaning with the help of others by the time we age substantially.

When I was doing that thesis which straddled the border ground between philosophy and theology, a not-so-close friend of mine called Paulene O'Rourke was undertaking her thesis on a more personal take on the mystery of evil, namely the problem of suffering and pain. None of her classmates ever got to read Paulene's opus, which unfortunately never really saw the light of day as sadly she ended her own life at the age of 21, having gassed herself in her grandmother's home where she had lived.  This young student was one of the most intelligent girls I had ever met in life and was quite sophisticated and always appeared to me as being quite brave.  Unusual for women at the time, she even rode a small motorbike.  I was not close enough to Paulene to know that she suffered from clinical depression, compounded by the fact that her Doctor father had been killed tragically in Africa and that her mother had become an alcoholic as she had never gotten over the death of her partner.  Too many painful events in life apparently conspired to bring a very sensitive human being to the tragic conclusion of her life in a lonely kitchen, suffocating from gas poisoning.

I often wonder what exactly Paulene had written in her thesis.  I wonder did anyone dare look. That's probably a useless wonderment because presumably it was heavy with pain.  I remember one day Paulene stopped and got me to ride pillion on her motorbike into college.  I remember her being full of life that day.  And yet, and yet and yet? As the Irish songwriter and singer Paul Brady puts it in one of his songs, "Nobody Knows" the chorus of which runs:

Nobody knows why Elvis threw it all away
Nobody knows what Ruby had to hide
Nobody knows why some of us get broken hearts
And some of us find a world that’s clear and bright
You could be packed up and ready
Knowing exactly where to go
How come you miss the connection?
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows

(Listen to the song: HERE )

The real thing: Edvard Munch's The Scream

Creativity is just one possible doorway towards the assuage of pain and suffering. Once again, needless to say, it is no instant fix or panacea for pain or suffering.  Rather, it is one very valid coping mechanism that we can employ.  How many poems, paintings, pieces of music and sculptures have been created over the years of our civilization whose provenance have been the cruel crucible of pain and suffering?  We instinctively know that the answer must lie in the thousands if not multiples of that figure.  In the field  of music we might mention the suffering endured by Ludwig van Beethoven and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and in the field of art and painting Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch and in the field of writing and letters Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway.    Anyway, these are just names that occur to me of persons who have suffered from severe mental suffering and pain. The reader can add his/her own.  An interesting article on creativity and mental illness can be found HERE.  

Beyond Creativity
Howth Village by night - from the Harbour.  June 2014

I find all types of writing therapeutic, just like an artist finds all types of drawing so.  However, such escape through creativity is just one doorway out of pain.  As a sufferer from clinical depression, I know writing or creativity is simply not enough.  Here is where we need the help from the professional medical people - be they nurses, doctors or psychiatrists.  For some people their depression may be of the reactive variety, that is a consequence of their failure to cope with life's stresses.  For most of these sufferers, talk therapy of various varieties and/or CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) will treat the mental suffering.  For those of us who suffer from clinical depression medical intervention in the form of psychopharmacology (antidepressants, and other psychiatric drugs in other words) will be the only answer.  And yet, I have found that I have needed both in my personal medical history.  I have a deep suspicion of many who, no matter what their professional qualifications push for a single answer to complex mental issues.  Either/Or has never worked for me personally.  Both/And I have found to be a more balanced position to take.  It's a fact that no depressive can write or draw their way out of depression or even illness.  Once other supports have been put in place, creative pursuits of all kinds will certainly help in one's recuperation, or in at least providing supports along the way.


Life is so much about balance, about not "going over the top" on any one simplistic solution. For me my mental health includes the following: a reasonably balanced and healthy diet (at which I work as hard as I can, but often fall so far short), good healthy physical exercise, liberal doses of meditation and visualization practices, good solid reading, working at my relationships and getting out and about doing various things to keep my mind busy.  I know how easy it is to fall into   "the slough of despond" as John Bunyan puts it so graphically in Pilgrim's Progress (1678), so I employ as many helps as possible: medical, therapeutic, mental and physical exercise as well as more creative pursuits to "keep my head above water," to use yet another cliché. I switch off immediately when I meet someone who has the perfect answer to everyone's problems.  Such people are indeed a "vexation of the spirit." Like the proverbial drunk at a party they are to be avoided "like the plague."  Apologies for the surfeit of hackneyed phrases and colloquialisms in this paragraph.


Arguing about Justice - Dept of Law UCD
I have mentioned this quality many times before.  The other day I went into our National Gallery and viewed some of our wonderful paintings on display.  To view them properly one needs to stand back, and, of course, that's why galleries have to be places with great space, or at least have a great feeling of space about them. Perspective can only be achieved at a distance.  Is it not the same with all the problems of pain and suffering that life throws at us all too randomly?  The perspective of time often heals them.  I love visualization techniques as they are so powerful in helping us through or coping with problems.  One such visualization that I like is to do, and which I find very effective in lifting my spirits, is to sit in what I call my semi-demi-lotus position (as I am so dreadfully poor at crossing my legs!).  I then unwind by using the usual meditation techniques like relaxing the body through a body-scan or concentration on breathing etc. When I am suitably relaxed I envisage myself sitting in my little spot on the ground with my back propped against the wall, then in my library, then my house, my street, my locality, my city, my country and so on up through a bird's eye view of my ever diminishing self, and up further till I have an astronaut's view of the world. This I call my visualization of perspective. When we are depressed we are self-obsessed.  Our little world becomes the only world. Perspective is a way of zooming out of self-preoccupation and self-obsession. We are one little creature on a very small planet in a very big expanding universe, one of some 7 billion plus inhabitants.  It is often good to realize in a very counter-cultural way, at least for a while, that we may not be that important at all in the great scheme of things.*

The Great Spiritual Teachers

Reading and listening to what many of the great  teachers and indeed founders of the various Religions and spiritual traditions have had to say is also important.  I strongly believe that going back to what many of them said cannot be squared with what the so called Institutions or Churches that followed them promulgated.  On this, I recommend a good thoughtful reading of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, especially the wonderfully powerful and imaginative scene where Jesus visits the Grand Inquisitor to tell him how far the Roman Church has strayed from what he was about when he was on earth.  So going back to what Confucius, Jesus, the Buddha or Rumi said can be very inspiring.**  One can find a lot of similar profound thoughts in each of these named above, and one can only be amused that it is so hard to find proof of such teachings in the works of the churches or organizations that were built on their foundations.***

Returning to the Music of Life

Let me in conclusion return to music by way of some further clarification or elucidation of a mystery which is truly almost beyond our understanding.  Firstly, let me recall for you some of the lyrics of one of the songs, Anthem, by one of my favourite singers, Leonard Cohen:

The birds they sang 
at the break of day 
Start again 
I heard them say 
Don't dwell on what 
has passed away 
or what is yet to be. 

Ah the wars they will 
be fought again 
The holy dove 
She will be caught again 
bought and sold 
and bought again 
the dove is never free. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in

(my italicization: You can here Leonard sing this song HERE )

Perhaps a trace or an intimation of an answer lies somewhere in these lyrics.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps!

End Notes

* The great thing about philosophy is that it trains the mind to ask all the most difficult and awkward of questions.  Not alone is this no harm, but it serves to deepen or to heighten our understanding and appreciation of everything.  On the one hand, we can undervalue human life as is exemplified in all the most horrific of wars we poor humans have been engaged in since time immemorial.  On the other we can over-value human life at the expense of our fellow animals and at the expense of the very environment which, unfortunately, we have almost destroyed. What a legacy we moderns have left for our off-spring!  In other words philosophically we can ask the twin questions: How do we undervalue human life? and How do we overvalue that same life?  Both questions are equally valid.

** Going back to the thoughts and/or writings of these early founders can be both enlightening and often surprising, so much so that one begins to question how far removed institutional and organized Religions have come from the vision or charism of their founders.  Confucius said much that is also found in Jesus Christ, viz., “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” which corresponds very nicely to what Jesus said: " Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Lk. 6:31)  There is wisdom in many of their sayings which often should not be taken out of context and which should be balance by other quotations from the same spiritual leader.  Context and balance is very important if we are given to quotations.

*** As regards the foundation of Religions and Churches it is often a moot question as to whether a so-called founder actually founded a particular religion or Church because in certain cases these were established by their followers.  It is arguable that St Paul was the great founder of the Christian Religion while its Roman version could be seen as the child of the Emperor Constantine.  I have no great interest in many of these moot points, save that in questions of truth and spirituality we must progress by taking into account all the sides of a story, all the perspectives as it were.  For me no one Religion, Church or organization can have a manopoly on the Truth.

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