Suffering and Teshu’vah

FreePsychArticles#20          SUFFERING AND TESHU’VAH

The process of repentance or teshu’vah contains the element of suffering  as one of the necessary stages in achieving “change of mind or heart.”   I use the word suffering as a universal experience of pain that encompasses physical,emotional or spiritual qualities.  It is an ingredient in remorse, regret and perhaps even longing.   It can be a mild discomfort or extreme agony.  At times it seems senseless or undeserved while other times we believe or are well aware of it’s cause.  Regardless of its variations it is a universal human experience although there is no doubt other life forms experience it in some form as well.

The distinctly human phenomena of suffering is the subject of this article.   Furthermore I would like to discuss suffering and it’s relationship to repentance or Teshu’vah that can be seen as a ubiquitous psycho-spiritual behavior occurring on all levels, anytime one goes through a change of heart or overcomes a behavior recognized as negative.  The three stages of teshuvah are recognition, “remorse,” and resolution by rejection of repeating the behavior are usually thought of occurring in sequential order.   One must first become conscious of a “lacking” before he moves to the following stages.   The essence of this article is a psycho-dynamic shift in this paradigm in which “remorse or suffering” initiates the process of teshuvah.   Since “remorse” implies feeling bad about one’s own behavior, acts or practices the elementary emotion is to “suffer.”

I enter into this article with a hypothesis that suffering, as a ubiquitous human experience is always linked with the possibility of teshuvah.

In the absence of the concept of teshu’vah one is left to deal with suffering in the negative sense.   One lives through life hoping to be comfortable with the knowledge it is virtually inevitable something will eventually happen that causes some form of suffering.   No one has found a way of avoiding it completely as far as I know.    Most people accept the simple fact ownership of a body, a mind and a human heart will occasionally lead to suffering in some way.     When “discomfort” arises initially a natural response is to name or seek the cause.

Sometimes due to the proximity in time, space or association there is an almost automatic conclusion of an external cause.   For example, if one goes into a social environment and suddenly realizes he is uncomfortable there are myriad natural assumptions of its cause,  from an environmental stimuli, the food, music, temperature, crowds, potential threats or any number of perceived problems .   At times one may focus on their own “shortcomings” as if they are “sinking.”   There is extreme variability in experience both in levels of discomfort and the perception of cause throughout one’s life and between different individuals.

Regardless of the personal experience suffering is by and large something to bypass, overcome or hope will pass rather than getting worse.   There are some who feel they “deserve” to suffer and even a few who bring it on themselves in an compulsive repetitious behavior.   In psychiatry we occasionally encounter small minority who actually achieves intense physical pleasure from suffering, in the form of physical pain inflicted on them.  Those who focus or conclude life is merely a material existence made up of a struggle to survive and hopefully prosper find it hard to accept suffering as anything more than a necessary ingredient and an end product of physical existence itself. It would be a large jump from a normal life against common sense to consider suffering has a positive function.   From the perspective of one who understands all things come from Hashem and are internally and essentially good the burden of suffering is relieved.

The avoidance of suffering is the predominant goal of most modern societies.   Over the last several years there has been an explosion of the healing arts.   There is a plethora of new treatment modalities and an increasing expansion of more traditional medical approaches.    Acupuncture, once practiced mainly in the Asian cultures is commonly accepted as an alternative to conventional medicine.    Pain management has become a sub-specialty of medicine that’s become vastly popular.   As a society develops and material prosperity reaches increasing numbers of people, problems of “stress, mental anguish, boredom, the need for entertainment, and personal or self realization” become prominant concerns.   Answers and solutions to human suffering fill the media with offers of medications, meditations, massage, diets, and wide-ranging newly discovered “ancient teachings.”

Minor aches or worries once dismissed as “part of life” are now given the utmost attention or are considered reason to seek help from MD’s, DO’s, PhD’s, social workers, therapists, reflexologists, chiropractors, dieticians, personal trainers, and numerous others.   The use of illegal substances spreads as a remedy of personal suffering throughout the societies of the world.   The more financially stable and educated groups tend to seek ways of avoiding discomfort or normal human suffering with their increased ability to seek outside help.   People from all walks of life flock to mental health providers stupified with the questions, “Why am I suffering?”  “Why must I suffer?”  and seem to believe it’s simply “not supposed to be like this.”   It is not uncommon to see someone suffering ‘because they are suffering…’

I have been privileged to be present at the birth of all my children.    I have watched with incredulity as my wife, who does not have exceptional pain tolerance, go through the pain of childbirth without any appreciable demonstration of the suffering she certainly experienced.   No screaming, moaning or daiphoresis.  I asked her once how she did it?    She answered, “because I know it’s a pain with an reason and purpose and will lead to the reward of a new child being born.”   In other words, something good will come out of it.

In the so-called spiritual school of life, especially Judaism (since I am most familiar with it), suffering is an aspect of spiritual growth and human development.   On the psycho-spiritual level of existance the external world, although important on it’s own merit, is the arena in which a Jew develops internal capacity and improvement of the soul.  This is, indeed, the goal of life:   perfection of the soul as the process of “coming closer to G-d.” Interaction with the world through Torah values and precepts defines his dealings and ultimately his search for G-d in this life.  There is an assumption or belief G-d created and sustains the world, existence and everything.   Indeed there is nothing without meaning or purpose.

Many years ago I heard an astute observation about change and growth.   There are two ways one will go beyond his normal patterns of living:  listening to the advise of wisdom or suffering.   In both cases, one more volitional than the other, it requires some form of discomfort with their current mode of functioning to enter a new path since humans tend to stay with what works and is comfortable.   Only wisdom or, if need be, suffering can initiate one to enter the unknown in the process of change.

To return to the original thesis of this article, there are numerous ways of coping with suffering when it arises.   I have mentioned several above although clearly have not exhausted the subject.    Before I presented the entry into the teshu’vah process in which suffering takes the role of initiator or driving force to change I’d like to mention a simple assumption discussed in prior articles.   The parallel process of beliefs proceeding emotion.   Let’s use a common experience of meeting someone and taking an immediate dislike of the person.   Perhaps it is assumed it is purely an emotional response without any particular “reason” behind this dislike or discomfort.   It may have merit since we can generally chose with whom we want to associate (unless it is a family or in-law).   If we carefully examine ourselves we will find a “belief” lurking in the background that triggers an emotional response.  They may remind us of someone or have some preconceived notion of prejudice that sets this dislike in motion.   Yet, as is often the case, if we give it a chance we may find the person quite likable and our feelings change.  Inevitably this is due to a alteration in our “beliefs” about the person.

This is parallel to the process of the change of heart in tesu’vah where due to the emotional experience of suffering, from whatever cause,  we come to alter or submit to a new way of thinking about ourselves or our behavior.   What was once acceptable and well-tolerated becomes unacceptable.   In the process we move away from our previously held belief or conclusion to reach a greater level of acceptance, or, in the case of the G-dly person move away from our personal point of view to embrace a more spiritual level.   This is the process we call coming close to G-d, from constriction to expansion and from selfishness to selflessness.

To go a step further, all suffering as a universal experience can be viewed as the pathway to teshu’vah.   Suffering itself is a motivating force and although we may be unable to relieve ourselves completely of pain can find new vistas and connections.   The lonely self joins the suffering of humanity in search of a Loving G-d.   We can come to realize that every moment has meaning and purpose in our broadening closeness with and connection to our own greater selves.

Gershon Freedman, M.D.

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