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The Purpose of Suffering

The perennial mystery within traditional religions is the problem of suffering. Why do good people experience sorrow in their lives?  Why does God allow good people to suffer, sometimes for most of their lives?

I am not much interested in the traditional attempts to answer this problem. The answers mostly miss the mark. The standard answers usually follow this formula: suffering is either created by God or by man. Since God is good, then man creates suffering. Therefore man is evil and is to blame for all the suffering in the world.

In my view, neither God nor man creates evil. There is a third alternative, and it is the basis of my understanding of the nature of good and evil. The third option is the mind. The mind has two main divisions, that of the conscious mind and that of the hidden aspects of mind. It is the exploration of the hidden aspects of mind that reveal why suffering exists. [¹]. This exploration is the province of psycho-dynamic psychology, or psycho-analysis. Now I can state why the traditional answers miss the mark. Psycho-dynamic psychology was only born in the 19th century, and extensively developed in the 20th century. Hence before modern times, religious and philosophical theorists lacked the ideas needed to explain the problem.

One traditional answer still has some validity, that of the presumption of ignorance. We have seen in the past century that the development of the psychology of relationships has enabled many people to surmount their difficulties in relating to other people. Hence by educating people on psychological issues and how to resolve them, a lot of suffering can be ameliorated or even overcome. Relationships improve when psychological teachings help to lessen the ignorance of social skills.

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The primary source of suffering in the modern world is the unconscious mental process of abreaction (see the articles on Abreaction ). For those readers who are not familiar with my presentation of this process (which is very different from the traditional idea of it), I can say that any arousal of excitement leads eventually to sorrow. In general any experience of happiness leads to unhappiness (because the happiness generates excitement). Unhappiness can take various forms, such as headaches, irritability, lack of energy, sadness, depression, and psycho-somatic disorders. [²]

If abreaction always creates unhappiness and sorrow, why does it occur?  Why is the mind set up so that abreaction is a "normal" feature of its workings?  What does abreaction achieve for humanity?

The clue to understanding the purpose of suffering is given by understanding –

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Personal Evolution

I explain the role of abreaction within my concept of personal evolution. We are aware that evolution exists in the world outside us. Solar systems evolve, galaxies evolve, our eco-system evolves, even our societies and nations evolve. But western science and philosophy lack any model of the evolution of an individual person. All that science can introduce into the picture of evolution is the idea of genetics. In my opinion, genetics applies only to the physical body and not to consciousness. The evolution of the individual person means the evolution of his consciousness. What psycho-dynamic psychology demonstrates is that a person evolves only very slightly in his lifetime; a person may change many of his superficial beliefs in a single lifetime, but his core beliefs and his character usually remain fairly constant. Basically, as I see it, the evolution of a person means the evolution of his character, since that is the basis on which his consciousness revolves around.

The evolution of a person is due to his experiences of stress. Without stress, the person stays the same. However, we can label stress in two ways : stress that the person can comfortably handle, and stress that takes him beyond his comfort zone into the unknown. If a person always stays within his comfort zone, his rate of evolution slows down to a crawl. To achieve faster evolution, fate pushes him beyond his comfort zone. Hence, the greater the level of stress that the person experiences, the greater is the potential for fast evolution.

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Reincarnation and Abreaction

It is not obvious that a person is undergoing evolution, and that is because we have not yet encased the concept of personal evolution within a suitable theoretical framework. Now if a person changes his character only slightly in a lifetime, how can he evolve to any deep extent? The answer is that he needs numerous lifetimes in order to attain a sufficient maturity of character that will enable him to handle life's problems in an equitable and ethical manner.

The only basis on which evolution of the person can function is that of reincarnation. Reincarnation theory is suitable enough to be the theoretical framework that we need. Overall, reincarnation theory assumes that the point of individual evolution reached when a person dies becomes the starting point for the next lifetime on planet Earth. Hence a theory of reincarnation is primarily a theory of personal evolution. My theory of reincarnation is different in some important ways from traditional theories since I incorporate into it my understanding of the subconscious and unconscious minds (this understanding is absent in traditional theories). I present my theory in the article Ego and Soul.

Within the concept of personal evolution, how does abreaction fit in? When looked at from a long-term perspective, abreaction is mainly responsible for the development of character. There are two other factors that are also very important : the person’s ideals and the rate of social change. The development of character can be speeded up by the holistic and noble ideals of a person, and slowed down by the absence of them. Also, in times of rapid social change, as we witnessed in the western world in the 20th century, abreaction becomes more intense and produces greater effects and so can speed up personal evolution. For comparison, times of slow social change, as occurred in the Dark Ages of the west, produce milder intensities of abreaction, leading to slower personal evolution. [³]

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Now I turn to the overall process of personal evolution. This is not a continuously-upward process but a zigzag one. So sometimes the person advances his character and at other times he retrogresses his character. At times it is one step forward, and at other times it is two steps back. How does the process actually work? How does a person gradually transform himself from someone with low moral values to someone with higher moral values?

Consider an average member of western society. Lets assume that he is middle class. Being average means that he has only shallow ideals for what he wants to achieve. And he can only handle an average amount of sorrow without it being detrimental to him. His capacity to handle pain and suffering is average. He is fairly broadminded about society, politics and religion. On issues of social justice he may prefer that social offenders and criminals be offered therapy rather than punishment (so as to try and stop them re-offending in the future).

Now suppose that fate dumps a ton of sorrow onto this person – for example, he may fight or live in a war zone, he may lose all his wealth in a business collapse, his family may be victims of a deadly and fatal assault by criminals, etc, etc. He now goes through a deep trauma, far beyond his comfort zone ; he cannot handle it and goes to pieces. Alternatively, a situation that he is in may push him well beyond his capacity to endure suffering and so he may well become engulfed in a psychological disorder of some kind, such as schizophrenia, catatonia, manic depression, etc. Abreaction is experienced, and at this level of intensity it has the effect of producing psychological scarring. His life may lose its meaning for him ; he may feel lost and emotionally numb, though not far below the surface he is seething with anger and guilt over the injustice of his situation.

When he comes out of the experience, he has become a harder person. He is no longer a soft liberal. Now his politics have shifted to the right and he is full of resentment and bitterness. He has switched to a belief in hard punishment for social offenders. He becomes less socially-minded and more individualistic.

Over a period of time, which may take decades in the current life, or even several lifetimes, he gradually recovers from his distress and begins softening the hard edges of his character. Then, perhaps, a healing experience may happen to him, so that he is either partially or completely healed of his psychological scars. For example :

a). He finds faith in a religious teacher. Now he becomes group-minded again. This only induces a partial healing, since though he is again soft to his fellow religious companions, he still remains wary and hard to people outside his group. [4]

b). He experiences an episode of deep compassion over some issue of gross social injustice that he studies or becomes involved in. The compassion sweeps away his hard beliefs about society and replaces them with softer, more liberal ones. This is a deeper healing than in example (1), though he may remain hard towards the perpetrators of the injustice. The feeling of injustice over his past sorrows had enabled him to attune to the injustice of some other people.

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If we now take a look at the effect on the person since his trauma of long ago, we see that the sorrow he experienced has made him more capable of handling deep distress. His character has deepened from the understanding he gained from his sorrows. And finally he retains the strength of character that his hardness gave him even though he has lost most of his hardness and is now much more broadminded than before. Most of the things that used to upset him in the past now no longer do so, or perhaps his irritations remain but at a lesser intensity than before. He has become a more mature person. He regrets the mistakes that he made in the past which hurt other people, and resolves to avoid making the same mistakes again. His practice of morality and ethics becomes deeper thereby.

Is abreaction a necessary ingredient of personal evolution?  Well, consider any happy societies or groups that you know. Do they evolve, or do they even change?  Not if they can help it. It is quite likely that the members of the societies or groups resist change, and hence personal evolution, since they do not want to lose their happiness. A consideration of the long-term conditions that help produce change generates the view that happiness does not lead to personal evolution. Hence, within the context of reincarnation, human evolution is driven by sorrow. Periods of happiness are only resting phases until the next period of change and sorrow.

In Summary,
once we understand the purpose of suffering, we can accept that we are moving, although very slowly, towards a better life in the future, a future where our strength of character will ensure that we remain unperturbed by episodes of personal distress. And we can fully accept the idea that the existence of sorrow in a human life does not indicate an absence of a good God.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹] My analysis of the hidden aspects of the mind is on my websites  Discover Your Mind and The Subconscious Mind. [1]

[²]. My ideas on the psychological conditions that produce some severe psycho-somatic disorders are in section 1 of my website Patterns of Confusion. [2]

[³]. I have various articles on aspects of social change in sections 7 and 8 on my website Discover Your Mind. [3]

[4]. I analyse the kinds of faith in my article Faith. [4]

Home Links Page Glossary Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Levels of  Suffering
The Purpose of  Suffering
Is there any Meaning to deep and prolonged Sorrow?
Masculine and Feminine as Evolutionary Influences

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Ian Heath
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