A psychological perspective on the inevitability of pain and suffering
‘Holy Living Holy Dying Conference’ Exeter
A psychological perspective on the inevitability of pain and suffering
Today I want to share with you some of the insights that I have gained
through both my work as an Analyst and Methodist Minister. I will
therefore be combining both a psychological discipline and a theological
One person who has greatly influenced me is Carl Jung the founder of the
school of Analytical Psychology. It was through his writing and my own
personal analysis with an analytical psychologist that I was able to give
meaning to many aspects of my life and enabled me to reject some of the
elements of Christianity and my childhood, giving me a more creative
inner and symbolic faith rather than a creedal, handed down one, set in
stone by church fathers through the centuries. The result was, so I
believe, a more authentic way of living and a faith that resonated with
what I experienced within my inner myself.
Giving meaning to our lives is so salient to Analytical Psychology.
In a few minutes time I will show some clips from Carl Jung’s last
interview before he died. To me what Jung raises in his psychology is the
question of giving meaning to our lives. As he says: no one wishes to
have a meaningless life. Every significant event in our living needs to be
understood. For those with a terminal illness the search takes on a vital
new dimension. It is what I call an existential moment. It is a time when
the present is all consuming and the past and future take on less
This is such a time for me personally. Two years ago I would have been
writing and giving a very different paper. Having been diagnosed my self
with advanced prostate cancer, I hope I write and lecture from the heart
and not just from my head.
For a few minutes I want to show you part of an interview which Jung
gave in his eighty fifth year.
Brief explanation and Clip of the Interview
During my training as an analyst I was very fortunate to have a supervisor
who had met Jung when he came to London to lecture at the Tavistock
During the course questions and answers, a person in the audience said
how pleased they were to be able to call themselves a Jungian Analyst.
Apparently, Jung replied ‘There is no such person as a Jungian Analyst;
you are who you are, yourself. You can call yourself an analyst for that is
what you have become through your training’.
Pivotal to Analytical Psychology is what we call the ‘the self’ the core of
who we are or if you like, our unique psychological DNA which evolves
and develops as we grow in experience. Part of this ‘self’ is our own
spiritual self. It is the person who we were born to be: The person who
over time will realise his or her full potential. It is the ‘Self’ which over
time develops the ego. Not the other way round.
The threefold aspects of humankind: Body, Mind and Spirit, have, in my
thinking to be an integrated whole. In this context the body is the totality
of all our physical being. The mind is our rational and cognitive function
and the spirit in analytical psychology is the non material aspects of a
living person which can neither be described nor defined. To neglect one
of them is to cause an imbalance to a person’s well being. It is
unconsciously easy for us as carers representing different disciplines to
lose sight of the fact that one of these, the body, mind or spirit, do not
come into our professional remit and as a result miss the whole person.
So let us now turn to these three aspects of care:
Throughout this paper I shall be using insights taken from psychoanalytic
theory but we need to keep in mind that theory is limited and often
provisional and of course has evolved from clinical material taken from
Forgive me for stating the obvious by saying the patient should be centre
stage. Although I say it is obvious, having worked in the NHS for a
number of years I think at times we did loose sight of the fact that we
existed primarily for the patient. When my own patients come for
treatment I have to remind them that although they may feel
overwhelmed by what is happening to them it is only one part of them
which is dis-eased. They are still the same person they have always been.
Yet they bring with them all the usual feelings that you from your
experience will recognise: fear, anxiety, depression, a deep sense of loss
and feeling overwhelmed. They experience envy, experiencing others
being able to do what they are now unable to do. The basis of such
feelings is often anger, an instinctual feeling that is quite difficult to
access. They ask the question: ‘why me’? Such a question is very human.
Perhaps the most common feeling is being out of control. For those with
a terminal illness they find themselves in a very difficult and dark place.
It is a place where they have to face their life and death situation. Many
of you will know more about this than me. The psychological pain and
suffering do not go away. When an individual is passing through their
own dark place they can experience loneliness and desolation. The very
core of themselves is attacked. Patients deal with their pain in different
ways. Some get depressed and immobile, others go into a state of denial
and some try to face the reality. All need help to understand what is going
on inside them. It is their search for meaning. Of course some do not
want to know and we all respect that. But the offer of an accompanying
journey should always be on the agenda.
Now I have to address why it is so difficult for many people to accept the
inevitability of pain and suffering.
Pain and suffering are archetypal. They are part of life’s cycle and very
few escape them. No one wants to suffer or see people in pain.
We live as if it will never happen to us and in some way this is a healthy
way of being. But I sometimes wonder if we as a community or
individuals cut ourselves off from the reality of pain and suffering and
that it can strike at any time. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the
02 centre in Greenwich. It was a time for people watching! Lots of
different cultures: young people searching their Blackberries and mobile
phones and a great sense of life was for living now. I suppose I did
wonder how real it all was. Were these people connected to the real
world, a world of diversity, rich and poor, justice and injustice, health and
suffering? How do we cope when pain and suffering strike? Do we have
the resources to cope with what is thrown at us? Are we getting so used to
living through the glossy magazine image or the next fashion logo that
we loose our true selves and the place we have in community? When a
person is in need of help my role as an analyst is to help the patient
contact the unconscious part of themselves. It is this part of ‘self’ that
contains many resources still untapped to help them in their crisis.
One of the most powerful symbols of the unconscious is the mythical
hero or heroin. We can draw much strength from such images. They can
enable us to battle with our feelings of being out of control and give us
strength to hold onto our dignity and purposefulness. (As carers you may
wish to find out more about how the unconscious gives a balance to the
Three years ago I spent six weeks living in one of the poorest areas of the
world. My time in Tanzania was a life changing experience. Suffering
and poverty were always present; hospitals which were fly ridden and
dirty; no qualified staff and little in the way of drugs. It was distressing.
But my African colleague reminded me that for his people suffering and
death were part of their cultural and spiritual cycle. Life and death were
not separated. One followed the other and they accepted the inevitability
of death and the beyond: Holy living and holy dying.
Holy Living, Holy Dying reminds me of a patient who self referred for
therapy. She came for her assessment and I soon realised that this was no
ordinary person. She was single and 92 years old. She wanted to talk to a
male therapist and she wanted to tell her story before she died. Telling
their story is another need in patients which can get forgotten or
You are in the front line of care. You are another human being caring
through professional skill for others in great need. But most of us are
wounded healers. The wounded healer comes from the myth of Chiron in
Greek Mythology: Chiron became a leader and wise elder amongst the
centaurs, half man, half horse. Although renowned for his skills and arts
as a healer and physician, which had made him patron saint of these
vocations, he was unable to treat an incurable wound in his own knee
which he had suffered through an arrow. He was, therefore, known as the
wounded healer. He lived with the arrow in his knee, a reminder that he
always carried the wound with him, thus making him sensitive to the
suffering of others.
In my experience of the medical profession, those who are most effective
are the ones that are aware of their own lack of omnipotence and this can
make them empathetic in their caring.
Part of the healing process is the attitude seen on the faces of the one who
is caring. What the patient sees in the carer will of course cover a whole
range of different images and feelings. This moves me onto the most
pivotal aspect of care: the relationship between the carer and the patient.
The patient and the carer:
The psychological dynamic of this relationship contains at its best a
reservoir of useful healing properties. Central to my work as an analyst is
the how we understand the transference. Transference is not just confined
to analytic work it is present in every relationship. The transference is the
dynamic between two people and the unconscious feelings it stirs into
action. A smile or a frown can trigger memories and feelings from the
past usually in connection with a significant person. Putting it
simplistically the nurse can become the ideal mother, the doctor the ideal
father, the clergyman or woman the ideal spiritual protector. But beware,
the idea, has an opposite. When we fail to live up to what they imagine,
we can become demoralised and confused. Having a little knowledge of
the transference relationship, can help us to feel a greater sense of
separation and even well being.
Transference is created when two people get to know one another and our
counter-transference is finely tuned to help us understand what we are
feeling about the patient. In this special relationship there is the capacity
for silence. Some of the most meaningful sessions I have had with
patients have been where the tolerance of silence created by the patient
has been maintained. It is through silence ‘lost for words’ that so much
can happen at a deep psychological level. Knowing that someone is there
yet no words being spoken, can be a liberating experience. It is in such
situations that we cultivate the capacity for ‘holding’ and ‘containing’ the
patient in their feelings.
I do believe that touch can play an important part in the therapeutic
process of healing. In my ministry I have always had a sense that to touch
someone, to hold their hand or gently place my hand on their shoulder
has been re-assuring, even life affirming. I remember once making a
pastoral visit to one of my congregation who had lost her husband.
Intuitively when she answered the door I gave her a hug. She told me
later that it had meant so much to her. For two or three weeks after the
funeral she had had no physical contact with another person. She had felt
isolated and had been suffering a sense of loss, in that her physical
relationship with her husband had suddenly been cut off.
I turn now to the theological perspective of our caring. Perhaps I should
change the word ‘theological’ to ‘spiritual’. Speaking of spirituality I am
thinking specifically of Christian Spirituality. For those who have a
Christian faith it is important to keep in mind, that central to their
understanding of what it means to be human, is the life and ministry of
Jesus. He is not only the archetypal healer but also sufferer. The cross is a
powerful symbol of the recognition that pain and suffering are for most
people part of life’s journey. Ann Ulanov in her book The Wisdom of the
Psyche comments ‘The real cross is suffering the hard reality that
sometimes situations are in fact insoluble’.
Our psyche in totality contains both the propensity to embrace light and
darkness. The relationship between the two is both a mystery and an
opportunity. We are told that we are made in the image of God. Does this
mean that God has both light and darkness? Does God have a shadow
side? Jung sought to address this kind of question in his paper Answer to
Job. Jung argues that if Christianity claims to be a monotheism it
becomes unavoidable to assume that opposites are being contained in
God. God cannot be all light and divorced from causing suffering, even
inflicting it, as in the case of Job.
If God has a dark side does this shock or bring hope? It would give
meaning to the cry of dereliction of Jesus from the cross ‘My God, my
God, why have you forsaken me?’ It would also give us a new dimension
to our faith that God is not an interventionist God. There are things
beyond his control, which even spring from his creation. He becomes a
relational God, someone who is in the pain and suffering with us and that
is the hope that most can embrace.
Analytical Psychologist and Methodist Minister