The Soul Journey: Reframing the Meaning of Suffering

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW




“Do not let them go home alone.”


Eugene Gendlin



Facing Suffering Together


In describing the transformational potential of compassion, it would be wrong to suggest that we as therapists can always help clients achieve emotional shifts that can transform their suffering through something that feels like “amazing grace.” The quote from the Buddha celebrates the potential of compassion to “crush” and “destroy” the pain of those who suffer. But this is certainly not always the case, and, when it does happen, it cannot be expected to occur in every session.


Much of the time in psychotherapy the best that we can do is to stay present with our clients in their times of suffering and offer them companionship and human connection. We do this by joining with them rather than reassuring them that things are not really so bad or trying to help them see their position in a more positive light. Trying to convince someone that their fears or concerns are exaggerated can be helpful at times, but this is not the gesture of joining. Cognitive therapy is based upon challenging negative thoughts that are distorted, and this can be useful, but healing through compassion takes a different form.



Achieving Wisdom Through the Awful Grace of God


I would like to illustrate the power of joining with suffering by referencing a now famous speech by Robert Kennedy that was given to a largely black audience in Indianapolis. Kennedy had found out just prior to the speech that Martin Luther King had been shot. As Kennedy spoke to the unknowing audience, he announced the sad news. Joe Klein of Time Magazine described the scrams and wailing from the audience– “just the rawest, most visceral sounds of pain that human voices can summon.”


After the screams died down, Kennedy began, “Martin Luther King. . .dedicated his life. . .to love. . and to justice between fellow human beings, and he died in the cause of that effort.” Klein describes how Kennedy went on speaking to the audience, “laying himself bare for them, speaking of the death of his brother.” Kennedy continued, “My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. . .until. . .in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’” The moment, as Klein describes it, was “stunning.”


Robert Kennedy knew the kind of despair when, against our will and through our pain, we receive wisdom through the awful grace of God. He had to come to terms with the death of his brother, as well as whatever other hardships and challenges he faced in his life. Kennedy’s willingness to share these very private thoughts with his audience made it possible for everyone to grieve together. His words are a reminder that suffering can unite us; in fact, our human suffering may be the essence of what unites us or ties us together at the deepest level. Maybe that is why pain and suffering can be associated with “grace,” even though it can be an “awful grace.”



Remembering that Life is Difficult


One of the plagues of our modern culture is that we tend to forget that life is not designed for happiness and, in fact, a certain amount of difficulty and suffering is normal and to be expected. Our ancestors probably understood this all too well, since there was no way to avoid being face to face with the suffering of humanity; the realities of death, illness, starvation, war, poverty, and mental and emotional anguish were more out front for all to witness. Today we are able to insulate ourselves from much of the pain of our neighbors and instead rely on sources such as television or other media to inform us of how our fellow humans are coping, leading many to conclude that other people are mostly happy, that we are somehow alone in our suffering.


Fortunately the world of spirituality offers plenty of poetic language that tells us otherwise and serves to remind us of our human condition. Even though we often associate spirituality with feeling uplifted and  hopeful, there is also a dimension of the spiritual literature that speaks directly to the suffering side of life. In fact, the human struggle has a special meaning in the spiritual lexicon. Many contemporary writers take a particular interest in re-framing human suffering, thereby giving it a context or a meaning so that we are more able to accept it and, at times, embrace it.


Jon Kabat Zinn makes the distinction between “spirit” and “soul.” There is “the upwardly rising quality of spirit” that is a part of our experience of faith, but there is also a whole mythology of spirituality that is about what he calls “the soul journey.” He describes this as “a symbolic descent, a going underground.” Soul stories, he says, “are stories of the quest, of risking one’s life, of enduring darkness and encountering shadows, of being buried underground or underwater, of being lost and at times confused, but persevering nevertheless.” This poetry of the soul journey is the language that can meet us and speak to us when we are doubting, suffering, lost, or otherwise feeling like we have failed.



The Wisdom of Allowing Yourself To Be Lost in the World


“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step,

you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make

with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”


Joseph Campbell


I have found in my practice that it is this literature of darkness and struggle that is often the most comforting and reassuring. What I find most helpful with clients is to remind them not only that life is difficult and that they need not feel alone or alienated in painful times, but that they deserve respect as well. Ideally, we are each embarking on our own unique quest for meaning, purpose and fulfillment. If we are committed to using our own experience to guide us, then we cannot rely on pre-established formulas or cultural prototypes to determine the path that we will follow. But it takes considerable courage to take the journey our own way, and we must expect that sometimes we will be lost.


As we go about creating our own maps that identify our goals and how to get there, we become wedded to these templates that we have constructed. Unfortunately the process does not seem to be about incrementally building one map throughout one’s lifetime. Rather, we often need to discard or at least seriously revise some of the maps that had previously provided us with much of our vision, philosophy and, to some extent, our identities. When an old map is not working, that experience is hard to deny. So we find ourselves in a transitional state, needing to discard an old map and not able to envision a new one. Yet in this confusion often lies great opportunity.


Contemporary American poet David Whyte sums this up as “the wisdom of letting yourself be lost in the world.” He says something that I have repeated many times to my clients and that never fails to produce a positive shift or a pleasantly surprised response. He says that if you can see the path ahead of you, then it is not your path. You can tell if it is your path because it disappears.



The Heroic Aspect of Suffering


“You are the hero of your own story.”


Joseph Campbell


What do therapists do when our clients are feeling despairing or discouraged, or when they are comparing themselves unfavorably to friends or to other people? Often these are not moments to remind them of their successes or to make suggestions for how they can get unstuck and move forward. But in these moments we do have some options available other than just appearing to give in to their despair.


I have found that, when clients are in this despairing place, I can always remind them that they are indeed heroes of their own journeys, and that ultimately their journeys cannot be compared with those of  anyone else. We all have ebbs and flows in our lives and are entitled to our pain and to pursue our process in the best way that we can. I like to think that we are comparable to the heroes in the ancient myths; we also encounter demons along our paths, and we are forced to take on these demons and hope that we will develop wisdom as a result. Yet there is no guarantee of the outcome or whether our journey will feel like a success in the end.


This is heroic and our clients deserve to recognize this. By calling our journeys “heroic,” we are  no longer critical or shaming of ourselves, and we are no longer feeling alienated.  Instead, we bring in compassion and respect. And even if I don’t say this out loud, it helps me tremendously as a therapist to  witness the heroism of my clients and to respond to them accordingly.



The Message of Easter: We Can Succeed By Failing


On Easter Sunday of 1993 I happened to attend a sermon at the All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City given by minister Forrest Church. At the time I was just beginning my work as a therapist, and although I had not yet formulated my ideas about compassion, I knew that the sermon carried a very profound message, and I have kept the hard copy ever since. It had been lost among my books and papers for many years, but fortunately I was able to recover it twenty years later.


What was most striking about the sermon was something that I will always remember–the way the minister described Jesus. It was not just that Jesus suffered and died on the cross, but that Jesus is also “a failure.” As the minister Forrest Church put it, “His disciples believed that he would march into Jerusalem and ascend to David’s rightful throne, as scion and messiah. Instead, he was betrayed and crucified.” Later he adds, “Jesus failed more monumentally than any of us will ever fail. Just when he thought he had put to all together, he was betrayed, killed, and forsaken by those who loved him. It doesn’t get any worse than that.”


Yet now, two thousand years later, we celebrate this tragic experience and proclaim Jesus to be the son of God. Forrest Church did not believe that Jesus was “the Christ” or at least not “the only Christ,” nor did he believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead in a literal sense. But he did believe that Jesus was a savior, not a savior in the sense that we are saved by believing in him, but rather in the sense of what Jesus taught:


“His cross is more lofty than any throne,  because the final defeat is a victory,

a victory of forgiveness over judgment and love over fear.”