Friday, December 17, 2010

Robert Sardello on Suffering and Like Gold Through Fire

Like Gold Through Fire: Understanding the Transforming Power of Suffering
About Like Gold Through Fire: Understanding the Transforming Power of Suffering

a FOREWORD by Robert Sardello

In our age, a false flight from suffering, nurtured by the strictly modern fantasy that medicine, counseling, a support group, or community service can remove it is simultaneously paired with more visible suffering in the world than perhaps has ever been seen before. To convey, as the Harrises have done in this bold work, Like Gold Through Fire, that suffering in fact gives us the most direct means of coming to terms with the mystery of our being, with what makes us human, may seem at the very least, masochistic. Should we not do all in our power to alleviate suffering – our own and that of others? Of course, we not only should, we must. But, there are two ways, two attitudes that can be taken toward alleviating suffering – a mechanical, technical, materialistic way and a soulful and spiritual way.


The modern way responds to pain by using the wonders of modern technology, whether that takes the form of instruments and scientific discovery, or the technology of transporting food, clothing, and medicines to disaster victims within a few hours, or the economic technology of getting money to where it is needed. Indeed, those of us who value soul do so from the perspective of a world having the means and the will to do something about suffering; only the naive would set up technology as an opposition to soul. A soul perspective, however, does try to bring balance by drawing attention to the inescapable fact that suffering is a tremendously important teacher; balance by trying to help us see that technology does not, in fact, remove suffering (at most it makes possible the alleviation of natural suffering, so that, in the Harrises' terms, developmental and transcendent suffering may take place with proper timing); balance in the sense of helping to distinguish between neurotic and transcendent suffering so that suffering is allowed its meaning rather than being repetitious self-indulgence masquerading as agony. The first reality that this book asks us to confront, and to ponder deeply, is that suffering, finally, cannot be denied, displaced, avoided, or projected, nor, ultimately, gotten rid of.

Suffering without consciousness differs enormously from suffering that has found its proper mode of consciousness. In the extreme case, suffering without consciousness is simply denial. Louise Lavelle, a truly great writer on the problem of evil and suffering, said that the worst misery is not to be aware of misery. Then there is suffering that, while strongly felt, still has no psychic element – it simply hurts and all of the psychic element is placed into the fantasy of escape, where it has no value. The many stories, fairy tales, myths, and personal case histories told by the Harrises give us an indication of the direction where suffering does locate its own meaning – the direction is down, into the depths, like the underworld terrain of Inanna, or of Persephone, where the true psychic element of suffering is to be found. This terrain is difficult to speak of other than in imaginal terms.

As soon as the word "imagination" arises there is a tendency to discount it as real. My suffering, that is real; the imaginal, well, that is the making of nice or not-so-nice stories, but they are only stories. The reader might react in this fashion. What these imaginal pictures convey, however, is value. These imaginal pictures, note well, are not saying that there is value in suffering but that suffering is the very source of value. In the absence of recognizing that to suffer means to allow something to happen to us that we cannot control, we have no importance, no merit, value, substance, purpose as human beings. We reach the realm of value only by allying our very being with the reality of suffering. Only imaginal pictures can convey this fact without false sentiment. Concentrating, contemplating, meditating on the many stories in this book, reading them through over and over, making inner pictures, not skimming, looking for answers, Like Gold Through Fire truly does turn into a guide book, a path into the depths that have no bottom.

How does one enter rightly into the realm where suffering shows its true continence as the source of value? This question is also addressed by the Harrises, but I want to bring it out, perhaps letting it sound more clearly. There is a science of suffering, and that science is patience. Indeed, suffering often turns us into a patient. The word patience suggests passivity, a kind of waiting without stirring and without hope; to be still, so that something else can awaken. What awakens is soul life; and it does so in every cell of the body. Even more, what awakens is the deepest and the highest dimension of soul life, the divine within us. Jungians call this the Self, but the term can get in the way of sensing the actual experience of being touched by the presence of the divine. I suspect that people are so belligerently reluctant to relinquish neurotic suffering, because it gives them a sense, albeit a false sense, of the near presence of the divine. The science and art of patience involve developing the capacity to wait in an attitude of expectation while at the same time having relinquished the expectation that something will happen. This mystery, too, we are confronted with in this book.

Suffering, when it does receive a nod of recognition as valuable, receives its acknowledgment from pairing it with transformation. Yes, there is Good Friday and hanging on the cross; but then there is Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. Yes, there is the bitterness of winter, but then that makes possible the spring. Transformation is a most tricky word, almost as tricky as the word "healing," but not as tricky as the word "salvation." So, let us face it head on. Transformation means death. None of us knows, as far as our individual lives are concerned, what is on the other side, discounting of course, the initiates and the true sufferers among the readers. We need others; we need the Buddhist and the Yoga philosophies, the Christian mystics, and the psychic initiates such as Jung to show us pictures, to provide imagination where we have none. Evoking transformation as the reason for human suffering can too easily slide into a kind of egotism – hey, this is worth doing, look where it gets me. Fortunately, the Harrises do not fall into this trap. They are too good of analysts for this; they recognize the difference between theory and what can be validated through one's own experience. They say: "In dealing with suffering, analysts to some extent share the same professional field as psychologists and doctors. However, our approach differs in that we not only study the theories of psychology, but also experience their validity within our own personal lives as we train" (pg. 118). That is to say, only those who suffer have the right to say anything about the mystery of suffering.

The word "transformation" takes on quite a different quality when spoken from having encountered it deeply. If I read of suffering, and unwittingly read only from ego consciousness, there is no other possibility than literalizing the word and taking it to mean that transformation means the way out, even if it is a more complex way than a pain pill. Read from the perspective of the Harrises' life work, transformation is not the way out at all, but the deepening of the way into it. And this deepening consists of transforming into a religious being-not simply one who believes, who has faith, who listens to the preacher – there is nothing religious in that. But, being a religious being, in every fiber of one's body, every feeling of one's soul, every thought, every action, through and through, that is transformation. And, truly, there are no words for this; thus we need pictures and we need these pictures brought by those who live in wisdom.

The purpose of speaking so deeply of suffering, as the authors of this book do, is not only to help us fathom the depths of this mystery in the privacy of our own hearts. Suffering, even if entered into with soul, remains untransformed so long as it remains private. Here, I want to touch upon something not explicitly spoken of in this book. Yet, this book, by its very existence, circulating in the world, is testimony to the fact that suffering finds its true meaning only when it is shared. Following the wonderful exemplar of this book, perhaps a good way to approach this most significant dimension of suffering is through a story. Sophocles gives us such a story, Philoctetes.

Philoctetes, on the way to Troy with Agamemnon and Menelaus, got off the ship at the tiny island of Chryse to sacrifice to the local gods. As he was walking up to the shrine, he was bitten on the foot by a viper, a bite that immediately became infected. Black and festering, it was soon a raging, bleeding sore. Pus and rot attracted maggots to the wound, filling the air with a stench that no man could stomach. His companions, nauseous from the sight and smell of the wound, took him from Chryse and left him on a deserted island, Lemnos. There was nothing on that island – no trees, no plants, no animals – only dry earth and rock crags. Philoctetes would not have survived except for the bow and arrow given to him by Heracles. Heracles had received that bow from Apollo himself and had given it to Philoctetes when he was dying; for Philoctetes had served him by lighting his funeral pyre. It was a remarkable instrument, that bow. It never missed the mark, such was its precision. Though few were the birds flying overhead, he never missed a shot and life was thus barely possible.

For ten years all there was on that island of suffering was Philoctetes, his maggot-ridden, never-healing foot, and a dead bird to eat from time to time. Filled with bitterness and rage, isolated and lonely, Philoctetes gave up on humankind and gods alike: "In all I saw before me nothing but pain; but of that a great abundance." Then one day a ship comes to the shore. Two figures leave and step onto the island. One of them is Odysseus, and the other, a young man, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. They came to retrieve Philoctetes, for an oracle said that Troy could be conquered only with the help of Philoctetes and his bow. The plan is to trick him into coming with them. When Neoptolemus meets and talks with Philoctetes, he finds he cannot trick him. He admires the courage he sees; he waits with Philoctetes, hears his stories, cares for him. Odysseus, watching from afar, finally enters, and threatens to force Philoctetes to leave. Philoctetes grabs his bow and is about to shoot Odysseus when suddenly Heracles appears in a vision, telling Philoctetes that he must go to Troy. There he will recover health and obtain glory.

On the island, Philoctetes festers in bitterness and rage, turning against the gods and all humans for this bitter injustice. He says to himself: "Necessity has taught me little by little to suffer and be patient." Being patient, paradoxically, means, as I suggested above, forgetting one's connections-with others, with the gods, with hope itself. And, in suffering, one is removed from the community of others; suffering is the only reality. No one is there to say what is happening, why it is happening, what brought it, where it is going. When we are suffering, the explanations, the happy prognoses, the encouragement of those around seem hollow and unreal. The name, Philoctetes, means "love of possessions." I do not know if this individual had many possessions, but now he is not even in possession of himself. He no longer belongs to himself; he belongs to suffering. The bow and arrow, instruments of bare survival, are like a terminal cancer patient connected to life support. Like this magical bow, modern, technical instrumentation does not take suffering away, but it does make survival possible.

Heracles gives Philoctetes the bow. Heracles also appears in the vision and tells Philoctetes to leave the island. Heracles, the hero, brings imagination to suffering. Andre Gide's modern version of this Greek drama illustrates this aspect clearly. Gide's Philoctetes states:
"My images, since I have been alone, so that nothing, not even suffering, disturbs them, have taken a subtle course which sometimes I can hardly follow. I have come to know more of the secrets of life than my masters had ever revealed to me. And I took to telling stories of my sufferings ... I came to understand that words inevitably become more beautiful from the moment they are no longer put together in response to the demands of others."
Here, we see that through suffering imagination comes to prominence. Without imagination, suffering is blind necessity. But imagination has to come to us; it is not something done solely out of our own efforts. And, imagination brings something new to speech. It makes possible moving into the imaginal fabric of words themselves rather than just wing words to convey something to others. Said in another way, truth comes to expression; imagination no longer belongs to the realm of the unconscious.

Heracles is evidently no ordinary hero. He is the only Greek hero who at the moment of his death becomes a god, becomes a figure of the eternal archetypal realm of the soul. Thus, he appears in a vision – and he encourages Philoctetes to return to the human community. But, we have to see that this moment of intervention occurs primarily because of the presence of Neoptolemus. Odysseus remains in the background. Bur Neoptolemus, while he does not seem to do much, certainly nothing heroic, laments, mourns, and cries out with the suffering of this individual. Philoctetes says, "You stayed with me; you had pity, looked after me, bore with the filthy disease." That is all Neoptolemus does. But this consolation creates a new community, lets suffering have a part in the communal imagination.

We mistakenly suppose that the instruments of survival have the power to take away suffering. But those who have suffered deeply know that it does not go away, ever. While, in some quarters of Jungian thought, the hero is identified as our ego consciousness and entering into soul is a necessity and deadly blow to the ego, the true hero was never simply someone with an inflated ego. The true hero, one who suffers, discovers something there that is brought back to the community, for the benefit of the whole community. Like Gold Through Fire is such a Heraclean work. And it is also the consolation of Neoptolemus, making possible a community of suffering.

Something of the ultimate secret of suffering is revealed in an almost passing sentence of this book. The authors say:
"As we go through the individuation process and our suffering transforms from developmental or neurotic into transcendent, we find that more and more it is the divine aspect in us that suffers" (pg. 118). 
A remarkable sentence that brings a flood of thoughts. Can we imagine that God is a suffering God? More, that the very essence of the divine is suffering? But, a contradicting thought says, God is love, not suffering. Ah, but here we can get a glimpse through the veil of the constantly sentimentalized word, love. Everyone knows, whether they dare to speak it or not, that love is suffering. Of course, there is neurotic love, every bit as much as there is neurotic suffering. But, if we have come as far in the contemplation of this book to awaken to the fact of the sacred nature of suffering, then we have to at least say we are brought to the very edge of love itself.

The position that suffering is love is taken by Jung in his most astounding work, Answer to Job. I will not here go into this complex book. It is a guiding model for the process of making suffering meaningful. Suffice it to say that Jung proposes that God needs human beings in order to become conscious, that God is evolving and needs human beings in order to evolve, and the primary way through which God becomes conscious is through human suffering. The individuation process is the human contribution to divine self-realization. What could God possibly be unaware of? He is not conscious of his other half, the feminine being of Sophia. When we have entered so deeply into suffering that there we discover something that is impossible to describe in words – that there in the very center of suffering dwells the divine being of Sophia, we have found the ultimate meaning of suffering as love. For, once Sophia, Wisdom, the Pieta, the Mater Dolorosa, the Soul of the World is encountered, a path is established for reconnection with Her Beloved. Only Jung's psychology gives us the direction, the means, and the courage for treading this sacred path of suffering. The Harrises, in this marvelous book, Like Gold Through Fire, help us to begin this holy work.

–Robert Sardello, Ph.D.

Robert Sardello is co-founder of The School of Spiritual Psychology, which began in 1992. He is author of Facing the World with Soul, Love and the Soul, and several other publications. He is editor of Goldenstone Press. He is also co-founder and faculty member of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and author of over 200 articles in scholarly journals and cultural publications.

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