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.
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)
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.