This excerpt first appeared in "After the Darkest Hour: How Suffering Begins the Journey to Wisdom." It is reprinted here with permission of Henry Holt & Company.
Real suffering is an authentic and realist response to the ragged wounds of living a human life. It's also unavoidable and an essential part of every
human life. Illness, loss of loved ones, disappointment, decline, death, limitations, and imperfections startle and shake us. But they awaken us to find meaning, dignity, and significance in our lives. They open the heart to pure compassion and newfound creative energy.
Real suffering is useful. It propels us to new levels of consciousness and self-knowledge. It is through suffering and pain that we break down our habitual barriers between ourselves and others and allow for the entrance of a transpersonal, transcendent perspective: a full appreciation of our intimate and profound spiritual connections.
|The pain that life will deliver...can wake us up and deliver us to a state of consciousness in which we can make each moment count and find meaning in our existence.|
Jungian analyst and writer James Hollis writes that suffering is an essential requirement for psychological and spiritual maturation, for without it one would remain "unconscious, infantile, and dependent." The moments when we are stripped bare of our illusions and confront the realities of human existence introduce the most important questions we can ask ourselves: Who am I? What is my purpose here? Where do I find meaning in my life? What is my relationship to God or some higher, transpersonal power?
Jung saw the arrival of these questions as an important step in anyone's development. He believed they arose in light of the authentic suffering that he felt was essential to psychological health and the process of self-discovery he termed individuation.
Instead of searching for happiness, he advised that people should instead search for meaning
. He also understood that happiness is both an unattainable and incorrect goal because it will never last.
Jung wrote in his autobiography, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections": "The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time, one of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. If meaninglessness were absolutely preponderant, the meaningfulness of life would vanish to an increasing degree with each step in our development. But that is--or seems to me--not the case. Probably, as in all metaphysical questions, both are true: Life is--or has--meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and will the battle."
In contrast to real, authentic suffering, Jung held that another kind of suffering, neurotic suffering, offers no meaning. Jung called it an "unconscious fraud" and declared neurotic suffering to be bogus and with no moral merit. He saw neurotic suffering as a flight from the words of life and as an unconscious--and unsuccessful--attempt to heal them.
On the one hand, symptoms such as anxiety, worry, ruminations, low self-esteem, depression, projections of unconscious complexes onto other people, addictions, and a sackcloth-and-ashes kind of guilt that causes people never to feel worthy are all aspects of neurotic suffering. On the other hand, deep anguish about our ordinary human imperfections and limitations is a symptom of real suffering. The pain that life will deliver in the form of loss, illness, or death can wake us up and deliver us to a state of consciousness in which we can make each moment count and find meaning in our existence....
Neurotic suffering keeps pain going. While real suffering heals through mourning and meaning, neurotic suffering just rolls on and on and is self-imposed. It creates its own cycle of pain that is repetitive and endless, like a dog chasing its own tail. In "The Aion," Jung wrote: "It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the life of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going."