Book Review: The Importance of Suffering

Redmond O'Hanlon, DPhil
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The Importance of Suffering (Routledge), by James Davies, author of the widely acclaimed critique of psychiatry, Cracked!

It’s not every day that we get a book on healing written by a qualified therapist, academic and social anthropologist – with a doctorate from Oxford, for good measure! His range of expertise is worn very lightly, and his teaching experience shines through in the crisp, clear and short recapitulations that close each chapter.

This is a very important, well-written book which should become essential reading for anyone involved in the healing arts, since suffering is – or should be – at the heart of our endeavours.

Suffering tells us what’s really important to us, and our approach to it tells us what we’re really made of. In Ireland we say that every illness has a secret blessing. Sophocles wrote, “for mortals greatly to live is greatly to suffer.” This, however, is not a call to self-flagellation before breakfast, but to courage and depth of suffering when it hits us, as it must unless we are completely inhuman, dissociated or sociopathic. It is clear that Davies knows the power and value of suffering, compassion and love. Indeed, I get the sense of someone who has known personal suffering that has given depth and soul to his writing, as well as saved it from being too cerebral.

In some ways, this book is a warning against the dangers of our modern culture’s promotion of negative models of suffering. Davies reminds us of something that I have had the bad luck to experience: if people deal unproductively with their psychic pain they are likely to explode randomly and repeatedly at those around them; chasing them away or transfixing them in the double bind which we routinely meet in borderline therapy.

Davies argues for a culture in which views of suffering have a positive valence, so that we face suffering when it comes, then use it productively – rather than dodge it in myriad dissociative ways.

Biomedical psychiatry has an implicitly negative view of suffering, so it’s no surprise to find that Davies is strongly critical of it and of the DSM. For him, the medicating of normal suffering guarantees that only secondary afflictions can be attended to, since psychotropic drugs’ function is not to cure as much as it is to shoot the messenger: our pain and symptoms are not the problem, but rather the signals that something needs attention. As such they are should be welcomed, and listened to.

A fruitful way of approaching this work might be to carefully explore pages 126-7, then go back to the beginning and let those pages resonate through the rest of your reading.

Davies devotes many pages to our epidemic of depression, treating us to some of the wisest words on depression you are likely to encounter. In the tradition of Victor Turner, Arnold van Gennep, James Hillman and Thomas Moore, Davies sees it as a necessary rite of passage, a deep initiation, as was the rape of Persephone: a violent, unwelcome dragging-down into a strange, dark new world for those who, like Wilde in De Profundis, have spent too much time on the sunny side of the street. Davies insists on the necessity of a descent into darkness when the time comes, bringing to mind that famous Sufi story that there are times you’ll find what you need only in the dark, not under the light of a street-lamp. As Roethke puts it: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” (N.B; The word “shaman” means “he who can see in the dark.”)

Davies writes:

“While psychological change does not depend on where we are physically, where we are located still has a very real bearing upon the likelihood of our undergoing psychological and emotional change. And this particular insight forces us to consider depression from a very new angle: not solely as a derivative of biological or cognitive dysfunction, but also as an experience, no matter how violent and visceral, that almost attempts to knock us into another emotional zone for the purpose of broadening our emotional experience…depression always assaults how we function in our day-to-day lives…it often forces us to take time off work, to suspend our normal social duties and activities, or to distances ourselves from our usual social relationships. In short, depression is an attack on the everyday. It makes us “unfit” for our existing life…in order to clear the ground for something new to enter in.” (p.126)

This is exactly the way in which Meister Eckhart talks of the soul’s need to empty itself so that the fullness of the divine can enter in; and was also the way things looked to me during my last long night of melancholy. I held on, shakily, to my belief that it might carry the seeds of a necessary renewal, even though my depression was often crippling, unbearable. I sensed, obscurely, that I was being assailed by a strong message saying that my current life could not go on as it was and that radical change was called for. Reluctantly, I refused medication, and agreed to let Saturn have his dark way with me, in order to see what might issue forth. I was convinced that SSRIs would simply shoot my messenger and teach me nothing.

This strategy changed my life, and I count myself very lucky to have done this, particularly when I see so many people being stalked by a semi-permanent pall of low-level depression precisely because they dodged their dark visitor with the crutch of prescription drugs or other addictions. The ghost of James Hillman, who once defined depression as secret knowledge, is a real presence in this book, but I’d have liked more of it and fear that the late, great psychologist might have reacted against the language of management and problem-solving which dominates at times here.

In matters of the psyche I prefer mystery to mastery, deferring to the very wise Gabriel Marcel who insisted on the distinction between a problem and a mystery: we try to solve problems, but must contemplate a mystery, staying with it until we can inhabit its depth. For example, I’d like to have seen more of the soulful neo-Jungian shine through, asking “What is this ‘dis-order,’ say, depression, asking of me? What other selves is it asking me to nourish? Why is dark Saturn treating me so badly? What does he want of me? Why is he making such a mess of me and my current life?”

Spinoza’s conatus is central to Davies’ discussion: a constant call to follow our deep desires and go beyond our present selves towards greater life and fullness of being which, if stymied, will cause stagnation, numbness, rage and depression. Heraclitus famously wrote: “pants rhei,” all things are in flow. We cannot step into the same river twice. (Or, I might add, even once.)

Davies’ critique of positive thinking, in the William James tradition, is both bracing and very welcome in that it is a warning of the dangers of neglecting our Shadow, as well as another reminder of just how great a psychologist James was.

I particularly appreciated, too, Davies’ shifts of mood and register: from philosophic reflections, to clinical examples, to rich, psychologically powerful literary gems and illuminating stories like those of Darwin’s, Tolstoy’s and J.S. Mills’ breakdowns/breaks-through.

Davies reminds us of how unjust and damaging to the psyche is neo-liberal economics and our acquisitive, addictive Western culture of ‘having’ rather than ‘being.’ He regularly recalls the wider social and economic structures which govern and limit therapy’s power to mine the potential for psychic growth among those – such as the homeless – who live in impossible conditions that not only block their natural development, but make it well–nigh impossible to get beyond survival responses. He engages with Karen Horney’s idea that if mental distress is not accompanied by fundamentally enabling environmental conditions, therapy will achieve only temporary relief. At this point I sensed that Davies wasn’t too far from agreeing with David Smail’s radical view that any therapy focussing primarily on the individual is extremely limited, if not futile; but he ultimately proves himself an optimist who believes in the healing power of awareness and in our capacity to change our situation.

I encourage potential readers not to be put off by the rather uninviting title of this book: it could more appropriately and more percussively have been entitled The Gift of Suffering. Either way, this book is important, and a gift.

 

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the book review, Redmond. I did read James’ book ‘Cracked,’ it was the only critical psychiatry book I’ve ever found in one of the big box book stores in the US, ever. And it sounds like I would agree with his philosophy within this book, as well.

    Pardon me for noting a few of your analogies, but they are quite relevant to my tale, so I want to note them for further research, and my own edification.

    “Davies devotes many pages to our epidemic of depression, … Davies sees it as a necessary rite of passage, a deep initiation, as was the rape of Persephone: a violent, unwelcome dragging-down into a strange, dark new world for those who, like Wilde in De Profundis, have spent too much time on the sunny side of the street.” I was “like Wilde,” prior to the rape, and subsequent cover up, of my child.

    ” if people deal unproductively with their psychic pain they are likely to explode randomly and repeatedly at those around them; chasing them away or transfixing them in the double bind,” and unfortunately this almost perfectly describes the rapist couple and their doctor friends’ behavior. They are a couple who did not properly deal with their psychic pain after their negligence had resulted in their first born “fly through the air like a little dolly,” after being hit by a truck.

    I was in denial of the abuse of my child initially, but did experience “the fullness of the divine … enter in,” in my case it took the form of a powerful dream where I awoke feeling “moved by the Holy Spirit.”

    Then I was gas lighted by the child molesters, their ELCA pastor, and a therapist friend of his, due to a query regarding this dream and disgust at 9.11.2001. And learned “the medicating of normal suffering guarantees that only secondary afflictions can be attended to, since psychotropic drugs’ function is not to cure as much as it is to shoot the messenger: our pain and symptoms are not the problem, but rather the signals that something needs attention. As such they are and should be welcomed, and listened to.” I wish I had refused the drugs, but instead made the mistake of trusting doctors, thus dealt with a bunch of psychiatric anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings, which put the “psychotic” voices of the child molesters and their baptism denying pastor in my head, while medicated. Which was gross, not helpful, especially while biological psychiatric practitioners denied, denied, denied reality. To the extent that my life was actually claimed to be “a credible fictional story” by my embarrassed psychiatrist. In other words, I dealt with doctors who behaved in the absolute opposite manner of what is actually helpful or legal.

    Once, finally weaned off the drugs, I was led on a lyrical libretto, “magical mystery tour” in which I learned about the Jungian theorized “collective unconscious,” or according to my awakening, the web of connectivity between all souls. Initially, it took the form of an “it takes a village” tale, where my local neighbors, and supposedly those in a NY town of the same name, near where I grew up, encouraged me, and helped me to heal. Then my second super sensitivity manic awakening occurred in my former hometown of Chicago, where I was kindly “informed” by the collective unconscious there, via an amazingly serendipitous walk past the Federal Reserve building (with a little disappointment regarding Greenspan’s spanning of the green mentioned, since I’m an ethical American banker’s daughter) that continued down the mag mile to my former place of employment. And I was “informed” that the people of Chicago had supposedly known me to be “the ‘Taylor’ who sings with the ‘Lord,'” who is, of course, just an ‘American Girl.’ (The former Lord and Taylor store had become an American Girl store). They also supposedly thought of me as the “fashion police,” since I had supposedly, within the collective unconscious, aided the police in pointing out criminals while I had lived in Chicago. Healing “psychoses” are bizarre. But it was a little introduction into who my “Shadow,” unconscious self, may be.

    In essence, I was left with a born again tale of earning eternal life, and becoming “of the bride.” And continuing semi lucid dreams of assisting with the final judgement, for which I, and now many, see that it may be time. Who knows, but it’s an interesting tale. And one should be able to ‘pray for the day’ without being defamed and drugged by psychiatrists (today’s all powerful “thought police”) for belief in the Holy Spirit and God, in a country that had laws against torturing people for their Christian beliefs.

    Wouldn’t it be bizarre if the Christians were actually right (except today’s ELCA Chicago synod headquarters, of course), and it was actually important to believe in both the “seen and unseen”? Who knows, but I still ‘pray for the day,’ since drugs don’t cure one of belief and hope in God, psychiatrists.

    Thanks for the relevant thoughts mentioned in your book review.

  2. Hi Redmond,

    Thanks for the great article/book review. What a wonderfully bracing perspective in the face of all the pathologizing of suffering/depression. I wholeheartedly agree with the message you put forth–based on your own personal experience and also what is depicted in the book itself. I myself have lived through great trials–and have found that there is so much more freedom on the other side (than if I had averted these trials). There really is an affirmative and mysterious process (and I love your distinction between “mastery” and “mystery”) that is at play if we investigate and embrace our despair as fully as possible.

    I wish you all the best in the new year….. Keep spreading the message. We are in a land of drought–and what you offer is water. Thank you….. Elizabeth