Science, Medicine, and Spirituality #3: Creativity and Resilience amidst Adversity

Science, Medicine, and Spirituality #3: Creativity and Resilience amidst Adversity

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trials and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

Helen Keller

Nov 9, 2012: Why do we suffer and what is the meaning or purpose of suffering? What does it look like to live in a world completely free from pain and suffering? People are so scared of suffering and death, yet like birth, death comes whether we like it or not.

Imagine a world where there is no death and people keep aging and life goes on. What kind of life would that be? It would be like living in a world in which the day never ends, no night, no circadian cycle of day and night. Unless there is darkness we cannot appreciate the significance of light and vice versa. Likewise, in disease and suffering we begin to appreciate the moments of healthy life, free from pain and distress.

There are things in life that we can change and other things that we are unable to change. We can conquer disease and delay death but we cannot eradicate death and live an eternal physical life. Traditionally suffering has been perceived as a morbid experience and a sign of doom and gloom. But there are increasing research findings which suggest a potential relationship between creative development and life adversity. This shows that through suffering we do not always end up devastated, but rather amidst or soon after a calamity or tragedy we may build a creative resilience. In the face of severe stress like physical injury, the body immediately reacts physiologically by releasing a hormone which blocks the perception of pain for the initial moment. Study of soldiers during the war shows that when they are shot in the leg, for example, the initial reaction is numbness and later, pain begins to be felt. In this situation the body releases endorphin which has an analgesic effect and protects the person from excruciating pain and shock until help arrives.

The experience of suffering is as diverse as human beings and can be physical, emotional, mental, or social. However there is a silver lining to suffering which may turn the anguish of a disease or a calamity into potential creativity and bring about amazing positive compensations. Patients suffering from autism, Down’s syndrome, bipolar illness, depression and even certain forms of dementia have been stigmatized and looked down upon as individuals with a disability who deserve to be institutionalized, discriminated against or shunned because of their disability. However, during the past few decades, neuroscientists and researchers have discovered exceptional and extraordinary intellectual, artistic or musical talent and genius abilities among some of those who suffer from these disorders. It seems that the rate of this occurrence is higher among such individuals than the general population. The unusual and highly remarkable accomplishments of children who have grown up with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning type of autism, is discussed in an interesting book entitled “Genius Genes”.

Interest in unraveling possible enigmatic and intriguing connections between creativity and mental disorder goes back to centuries ago. Socrates and Plato in describing the emotional state of poets, spoke of divine mania or inspiration.

Aristotle was very puzzled by a possible connection between highly gifted individuals and depression writing, “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by diseases arising from black bile…”

Suffering, especially when it is life threatening, is not only painful and a cause of distress, but also raises questions about the purpose of life and its meaning and ultimate destiny. Spiritual perspectives of life place individual suffering in the larger context of the universe and underscore the fact that suffering is a universal experience. Moreover spiritual teachings give a meaning to human suffering and guide us in how to accept and transcend this experience through faith and a deeper understanding of personal growth.

In Buddhism it is believed that suffering arises from attachment to the material world. Desire is the basis of this attachment. Life means suffering and cessation of suffering is a gradual process and is attainable by denial of desire and rejection of wants for gratification. In Judaism pain and suffering are perceived as part of human fate and the result of sin. Therefore, suffering is a process of atonement. In Christianity and Islam, the concept of suffering is related to punishment for sin. The Christian notion that a child is born with sin is considered the basis for the need for suffering in this world. According to the Baha’i teachings, a human being is born noble, not sinful. Proper education reveals this nobility. Therefore, personal growth for perfection in this material world is attainable not only through suffering but also through happiness.

If we reflect on the dynamics of the interaction of individual adversity and potential creative resilience we note that in the lives of many of those who rose to prominence in artistic, scientific, sport or philanthropic achievements, many of them suffered greatly during their lives. Behavioral scientists have been exploring the question as to whether adversity can fuel creativity in some people. If this is possible, what are the pathways and what is the mechanism? We are still at the beginning of a long road towards the enfoldment of this mystery. However the fact that there is no universally agreeable definition of creativity complicates the understanding of this connection. But the time has come for us to move forward in our research and celebrate the achievement of countless men and women who have overcome their physical or mental disabilities through creative adaptation and progress.

Helen Keller, a renowned American woman who was deaf and blind for most of her life believed that the development of character is strengthened and enriched through life trials and suffering. Resilience amidst life crisis is viewed as a process which consists of adaptation in the face of adversity. But this adaptation needs to be based on a vision of serving the common good rather than oriented toward status and self-glorification. As Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps wrote, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 179)

Resilience is a dynamic process; it is not static. A person may be resilient to a distressful event and non-resilient or weak in the face of another event. Belief and culture play an important role in acquiring resilience in life. One of the characteristics of building resilience in response to a calamity is having faith and deriving a meaning from the trials and hardships experienced during one’s life (A-M. Ghadirian, Creative Dimensions of Suffering, p. 23).

Be thou strong and firm. Be thou resolute and steadfast. When the tree is firmly rooted, it will bear fruit…The trials of God are many, but if man remains firm and steadfast, test itself is a stepping stone for the progress of humanity.” (Abdu’l-Baha)

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This is the third in a series of posts on Science, Medicine, and Spirituality by Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian, a physician and professor at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Ghadirian is an author and researcher with numerous scientific articles and several books in the fields of psychiatry and social sciences. In recent years he has been exploring creative aspects of suffering and the role of faith and resilience as well the impact of materialism and substance abuse on society. Currently, he teaches the interrelationship between medical science and spirituality in the healing process.

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10 thoughts on “Science, Medicine, and Spirituality #3: Creativity and Resilience amidst Adversity

  1. The expression “been there done that” is often heard.
    Is all suffering really necessary?
    Do we really cause most of it ourselves, because our lack of understanding, faith or other.
    Our greed, our appetites, our ambitions, our ignorance, our carelessness?
    Our lack of love?
    At times we get hurt by others.
    At times we hurt others or cause them pain.
    And yet we ask ourselves, did that pain have any purpose..? was it really necessary to be mean?
    The greatest of men and women have all suffered. Our Heroes and Heroines.
    Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Baha’u’llah and yes even the least known…but great in other ways.
    Somehow Mankind was not ready to receive such great souls and persecuted them, artists, scientists, others.
    All for a cause. All because they wanted something better for the world.
    Most artists died in poverty. Now their works are worth fortunes.
    Most prophets were denied in their time and age.
    Most philosophers were despised.
    Most forms of art ridiculed at their time of their creation, appearance.
    Religions are opposed to each other and yet every one of them tells us to Love one another..
    We still have not learned the lessons.
    A discovery is a gift, as is a piece of music or a form of art. Science is also a revelation in some ways of the material world. Matching minds and heart. We are neither all one or the other..we are made up of both.
    Flesh, soul and heart…and spirit. We are not rocks,.and yet even minerals have a kind of magnetism…what is a magnet? Communication is not just about technologies.
    If not a need to cling to another of its kind.
    What holds rocks together.?
    We are so much more than mere stones, plants, animals…We are humans.
    More is expected from us.
    Even animals have sentiments and feelings and their physical capacities are greater than ours.
    We are not hear to glorify suffering but to understand it better…learn its mysteries, and learn from the power it at times can carry to build our own strengths. Teaching us lessons in life.
    No one is immune.
    Everyone suffers.
    It is what we have in common.
    Somehow though in suffering there is a kind of tragedy that calls upon love to heal.
    But however when suffering some lash out at others…they become harder to approach.
    Pain hurts. No one says thank you to pain.
    We just want it to GO AWAY! forever!
    Only Solidarity can make us realize, that when in pain, it is a call to others…
    No one should suffer alone.
    Sharing it diminishes it a little when trying to create a more caring world.
    Our love and prayers to all those suffering..in many ways.
    Those who have suffered have a greater compassion for others..
    Time to lend a hand…to those in need. Everyone needs some form of healing.

  2. Wonderful post so concise and to the point.

    Suffering is can be a gift for spiritual progress. I have not had the courage to pray for suffering and tribulations

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments. As you know, suffering has an existential and spiritual meaning. In general, people don’t seek to suffer. However,when it happens for a good cause such as to save lives, to promote justice or to defends one’s rights and integrity, such suffering is not in vain. Our materialistic and pleasure-seeking society has a lower tolerance for pain and suffering. Those who have a spiritual perspective on the meaning of life have a greater understanding to endure hardship and suffering.

  3. Nothing is ever done for nothing.
    Every effort brings a new victory.
    In the midst of crises there often seems to be no hope
    But then voices are uplifted
    Some sing, some write poetry, some speak out,
    make movies, render services
    Professors teach, on line, or other.
    All speaking out their conscious minds in search of Justice.

    Nirvana does not exist
    Some people do care
    Their capacity to connect and have one voice
    One sentiment, one heart, one mind,
    Making a difference in the lives of others by their actions
    Inspirations, compositions, creative comments
    and most of all our heartfelt solidarity with those that have not
    The freedoms they deserve in a world just beginning to understand
    The terms of Oneness.

    Making every action count
    Making every sentiment make a difference
    All we really want is the blessed thing called Justice.
    Haven’t been around as long as others
    But can still say
    Truth cannot be hidden behind falsehood.
    All things are made clear in the end.
    People are not ignorant even if some think they are
    They are finding ways to see and learn
    What many have already seen.
    There is a better tomorrow!
    There is a better way!

    A student writes a letter of apology.

    Dear Professor,
    I am sorry if my assignment is late,
    my laptop and notes were taken by the Police,
    My home ransacked, the chairs broken
    My parents beaten.
    Pray forgive me professor, if my assignment is late
    My friends and classmates are in prison.
    I hope you will forgive my lateness in submitting
    What I hoped to be an essay for a better future.
    Please don’t consider this as an excuse…
    I am truly trying very hard to remember
    All I have learned from you, dear Professor!
    With heartfelt apologizes for my tardiness,
    Your dedicated Student:

    While I hear these notes read; my eyes shed a tear
    A student for no reason denied his education
    A religion banned, a people oppressed
    Professors in prison, the homemade classroom a mess!
    Nothing left but a mind with a vision
    Now not even a laptop to continue their education.
    For the injustices these learning hearts must endure
    All the sufferings, the heartaches, the hardships
    Just to acquire some learning.
    A prayer in their favor is the least we can do.
    Raise a little consciousness! Sign a letter!
    Hope to hear soon that things are better.
    The only fire that should remain
    Is the burning of our hearts for their pain,
    As a glimmer of hope forever exists
    As many continue to raise their voices against injustice.

    A people under fire…can never be called justice.

    1. I agree that suffering is not to be glorified but it is rather to be understood. One needs to develop empathy for those who suffer. One of the most common sources of suffering in today’s society is injustice. The persectuion and discrimination against the Baha’i students in Iran is a violation of human rights and the basic right to education.

  4. I’m writing to clarify what I see as the author’s truncated understanding about how sin relates to suffering in a Christian worldview.
    The statement that a person must suffer inherently because of sin is to misstate the effects of a being present in a sinful world. The suffering that one is faced with in everyday life comes with being present in a sinful world. Sin and its effects have an overarching effect on humanity, having eliminated the state of grace that human beings once enjoyed. Since humanity has left grace and the protective fold of God, sin and suffering is now rampant.
    Thrust into a world fallen from Original Grace, one is drawn into a position of interaction with sinful world and a fallen humanity. While, theoretically, an individual could find a way to never interact with a fallen world, in a practical sense, one cannot avoid day-to-day interaction with a fallen, sinful humanity.
    Consider the example of a formerly pristine environment becoming contaminated over time by an airborne pollutant. At one time the air was clean, but now everyone who breathes the air takes in the polluted result. The individual who suffers breathing in the unclean air isn’t necessarily the one who dirtied it, (there are no collective sins in unvarnished Christian teaching) but because they breathe the pollution, the suffer the effects.
    The mistake of much modern Christian theology is take what applies to the collective (redemption) and apply to the individual and take what belongs to the individual (sin) and apply it to the collective. Therefore, sin and guilt become the public face of Christian teaching, rather than the ideals of redemption and deliverance with are the tenants of the Christian faith. The fundamental teaching of Jesus the Christ is that God saves and redeems you from the ultimate destruction that sin causes, not the idea that you must suffer in this life, or the next , because of it.

    1. Thank you for your reply and for taking the time to read the blog and express your view point. Naturally every person has the right to his or her view and I am glad that you expressed yours. I may not agree with your concept of sin, but I respect it. Sin is not the only human shortcoming or failure that causes suffering. Suffering may be caused by other factors and for some, it may be a stepping stone to arrive at new realizaations and to make progress.

  5. I love this article.
    Its timing can’t be any better. I was recent involved in a car accident. That very instant where it all happened, I was in extreme pain and filled with fear.

    Amidst that chaos, I observed myself clinging onto my body and there was extreme fear of loosing it. I was clinging to this body, so attached to it and really did’nt want to let go.

    subsequently, after my Call to God, I somehow saw my self letting go of that attachment. I suddenly seem to have accepted that my body might leave me. In that very instant a beautiful sense of calmness, serenity, bliss, nirvana came over me.
    I think for the first time, I felt “faith” when Abdul Baha speaks about ” As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be . . ” I guess this could be one of those moments, at least in my life.

    If it were’nt for this extreme situation, I doubt I would see/fee/be touched the way I have been. This insight that God is there no matter what. My physical body did protech itself by shutting down, turning away etc, yet my spirit was that one that gave me the insight to see though it.

    “Resilience is a dynamic process” Amen to that !, my travels and trials when I was in Borneo more then a decade ago, must be why I was able to endure this and view it through a different world view.

    I shall always be grateful to God for showing me detachment ,specially to pain and materialism .

    Thank You for a wonderful article. Keep it coming pelase.

    1. Thank you for sharing this deep and moving personal story of your critical moment in life. There are times, especially during a life-threatening crisis when we seem not to be in control of our life or destiny. That moment can be a turning point if we have faith and place our trust in God and submit our will to HIs Will. This is a moment of deliverance and true freedom when nothing else works. Sometimes the mind fails to explain a crisis while the soul understands its wisdom.

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