Sunday, February 6, 2011

Trauma and Pain: Do They Add or Detract from Life?

The overflowing abundance of trauma and suffering is often cited as an argument against God. But perhaps suffering is a good thing? In “One Nation under Therapy,” Sally Satel and Christina Hoff Sommers affirm this proposition:

• In their book, “Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis,” Tedeschi and Calhoun bring together scores of studies that complement their own findings that about two-thirds of trauma survivors can point to ways they have benefited from their struggle to cope with the ways a traumatic experience once shattered their lives. Similarly, Rudolf Moos, a psychologist at Stanford University, has found that more than half of all people who experience crises report some benefit from them: ‘For many people life crises are the catalysts…lead[ing] to greater self-reliance, better relationships with family and friends, new problem-solving skills.’ (214)

If they are right, then we have to rethink questions like, “What is the ‘good life’ and the goal of counseling?” Is life about the relief from painful symptomology? If so, then we should regard crisis as nothing more than a curse. This seems to be the prevailing attitude within the psychotherapeutic community, where the goals of self-fulfillment and self-actualization – those things that are immediately self-enhancing – seem to go unquestioned. Maslow did more to set these values in stone than anyone else:

• To flourish, he said, human beings must first satisfy their basic physical needs for food, water, shelter, and safety. As soon as these basic needs are met, a new set emerges: “belonging needs” and “esteem needs.” Maslow classified self-esteem as an essential human need and he called for institutions where the “core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved, and respected by others and by himself.” Individuals who felt safe, loved, and confident, his theory went, could then move on to a higher state of creative or ethical being that Maslow called “self-actualization”…Maslow was convinced that neurotic behavior and anti-social emotions (rage, jealousy, fear) have their origin in the frustrated needs (physical and emotional) of early life. “If this essential core of the person is denied or suppressed, he gets sick.” What we call “evil” or “immoral” behavior is caused by the frustration of healthy desires. (61-62)

In other words, life is about self-fulfillment and not deprivation. However, we find that deprivation deepens character and enriches life. Interestingly,

• Maslow acknowledged that his conclusions were not based on conventional social science…[According to] Edward Hoffman, Maslow’s biographer, “Maslow felt sure that he was intuitively correct and that new research methods would eventually validate his ideas.” (62)

Indeed, we all want validation, approval, and respect, but are they good for us in the long run? Maslow’s certainty reflects a problem deeply embedded in today’s counseling industry – the assumption that what feels good in the short run is also good in the long run, and that what the client desires from the counseling relationship will actually benefit them.

Western culture has become notoriously myopic and addicted to what feels good. The idea of self-fulfillment has been elevated above Mount Sinai, where it reigns as the supreme arbiter of life’s quality. If it doesn’t feel good, then it isn’t good! However, what we have exalted can’t reach down to comfort us in our need. If life is about self-fulfillment, then we just burden ourselves with one more requirement and feel like an utter failure when we find ourselves unfulfilled and castigate ourselves accordingly.

However, Jesus taught that life is more, far more than self-actualization:

• "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
(Matthew 6:25, 33)

We need not to be concerned about our needs, because our Lord is concerned about them. Instead, life is about truth and our service to the truth. Ironically, we ultimately become optimally fulfilled as we serve Him:

• Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
(Psalm 1:1-3)

The true way of self-fulfillment is the way of God. Lifting ourselves up is the way down, while humbling ourselves before God is the way up (Luke 18:14).

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