Faiths Forum

Health & Well Being Conference – 20th September 2014

 

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PRESENTATION AT HEALTH AND WELL BEING CONFERENCE

September 2014

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are various areas where Religious beliefs can both inform and direct therapeutic technique. One of the most obvious is in the field of ethical judgment on what may be morally permissible as opposed to what is technically possible. However this is not what I am going to speak about in this meeting

I expect that many of you will have experienced the “Dark Night of the Soul” either personally or in the lives of those close to you. Others can well imagine what it is like to live in its grip – the feelings of hopelessness, of deep despair, that life is a burden and not worth living, and that nothing has any personal meaning. I am not referring to the fleeting attacks of the miseries from which we all sporadically suffer, but something far more threatening to our well being. It is intimately bound up with our approach to real suffering, and what we can do to help the individual get a perspective on its meaning for them at that moment in time.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, please let me emphasise that I am not a professional in the subject. It is just that 50 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the ‘Dark Night’ only too well and want to pass on what I have learnt in overcoming it.

 

The ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ that I am going to talk about may be the result of a spiritual or physical trauma. It may stem from persecution, war time atrocities or bullying. We all have read how many cases of bullying at school or even on the internet end up with the victim taking their life. It may also follow severe life threatening illnesses, war-time injuries, natural disaster or crippling accidents.

In all these cases it may lead to the ‘Dark Night’ where, in the extreme case, all feeling for any meaning to one’s life is lost and the will to live itself is threatened.

There are many approaches to healing, including pharmaceuticals, complementary therapies, electro convulsive treatment and meditative techniques, all of which may be initially helpful. Ultimately, however, a much more fundamental spiritual approach is necessary in order to restore the will to live.

 

 

Each of the World’s religions has something to contribute on the problem, As a Jew, I am going to approach it from the traditional viewpoint of my community. The session is supposed to end with a question and answer period. Whilst I am willing to take questions, I would much rather open it up for you to make your own contributions from the Faiths in which you stand, so that we can all learn from each other.

There are times when, in the event of unbearable personal suffering, we cry out “Why this? Where is God in all this?”. The atheist asks “If there were an omnipotent God, how could He permit such tragedies to happen?”

The stumbling answers of some theologians and philosophers not only fail to satisfy, but too often are almost obscene in their implications, especially when they invoke speculative and judgmental theories, totally lacking in compassion, to suggest that victims had invariably brought their suffering upon themselves.

 

 

 

There is a wonderful prayer of the 18th century Chassidic Rabbi, Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, which sums up the Jewish approach in a nutshell:

 

Master of the Universe!

I do not beg you to reveal to me the secret of your ways

That would be too much for me  –  I could not bear it.

But show me one thing, show it to me ever more clearly and more deeply.

Show me what this, which is happening to me here and now, means to me. What it demands of me. What it is that you, Lord of the World, are telling me by way of it.

Oh! it is not why I suffer that I wish to know, but only whether I suffer for your sake.

The Jewish approach to the problem of suffering and its healing is derived from various spiritual principles:

 

Firstly in the Bible, through the commandment:

“I set before you this day, good and evil, blessing and curse.

Choose therefore the good that you may live”

This is a reminder that Judaism totally rejects the idea of “original sin” and “Pre-destination”. It acknowledges that humans are in perpetual tension between their innate “inclination to good” and their “inclination to evil”, the “Yetzer ha tov” and the “Yetzer ha rah”. The tragedy is that when people choose to let the ”inclination to evil” dominate, it is the innocent that suffer.

If there were to be no suffering, no evil in the world, then God would have made us mere robots. It is part of our humanity that we are all creatures with free will and the moral responsibility to make intelligent choices, both in our refusal to go the evil way of humiliating or destroying people, and in the way we choose to respond to being bullied or injured, and other traumatic situations.

Secondly in the Talmud, which tells us that:

“He who saves a single soul, saves the World and he who destroys a single soul, destroys a World”

This tells us how we are all responsible for each other, particularly for comforting and healing those that have been traumatised by life’s misfortunes. One might consider it as an earlier expression of John Donne’s “No Man is an island”

 

Thirdly in the mystical doctrine of the Kabbalah which talks of:

Tikkun Olam” – Repair of the World

This reinforces the need for healing and reconciliation. It also teaches the Messianic responsibility of the individual and the community to take responsibility for the mess that we are in, and put things right..

So we have the progression from personal responsibility, to communal responsibility, to global responsibility in the alleviation of suffering.

 

Each of these spiritual principles makes it clear that suffering is not a punishment to be endured but a challenge to be answered.

The theological Job’s comforter would defend God by rationalising suffering and demanding a passive acceptance of it as God’s will, with ‘pie in the sky for compensation’. But in reality, whilst it is difficult to come to terms with suffering, it can neither be passively accepted, nor can it be rationalised, nor can God be blamed or defended. What we have to do with our personal suffering is to invest it with meaning, and recognise it as a call for creative action as a response to the situation in which we find ourselves, whilst acknowledging that the ultimate nature and meaning of God lies beyond our comprehension.

 

I have spoken about spiritual principles. It is now time to give two examples from the early 1940s to show how these philosophies of meaningfulness and responsibility for personal choice can be put to powerful therapeutic effect in practice.

 

For a moment, let us go back in time and visit Stoke Mandeville hospital during the last war, There we find a ward filled with soldiers paralysed with spinal injuries, with no hope for the future, just doped with pain killers and left to die in as comfortable a manner as possible. The death rate was as high as 80 per cent.

A neuro surgeon, Dr Ludwig Guttman, a devout Jewish refugee from the Nazis, was posted there in 1944. His response completely revolutionised the treatment of these injured soldiers. On his first day, he walked into the ward, and to the consternation of the other doctors and nurses, threw open the curtains to let light into the room, and ripped off the plasters that were immobilising them. He forced them out of bed into wheel chairs, when all they wanted was to be left alone to die in peace. He encouraged them into doing muscle strengthening exercises, challenged them into participating in competitive games, and saved their lives by giving them a reason, a meaning, and a will to live. The death rate was reduced from 80 per cent down to 20 per cent. His memorial lives on in the Paralympics which he pioneered and for which he was knighted. In 2012 we witnessed, in London, the inspiring results of the approach that he introduced.

Fifty years ago, I suffered my own spiritually crippling ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. The one thing above all others that helped my recovery, was providentially finding the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. It was written after the war by Dr Viktor Frankl. During the 2nd World War he was a slave labourer in one of the Nazi Concentration Camps, in constant danger of death in the gas chamber or from one of the epidemics of typhoid fever. By day he had to perform the heaviest of manual labour: digging, carting and moving dead bodies. But by night he developed the therapy that he had already started upon before the war, not only through choice, but also through sheer stark necessity. His book shows how he developed a constructive response to the prayer that I quoted earlier, and used it therapeutically to help others after the War.

 

The Nazis had a deliberate policy of attempting to destroy a Man’s identity by stripping him, not only of his possessions and clothing, not only of his hair and dignity, but also of his name. In return he was given the cast-off clothing of a man already a victim of the gas chamber and a number was tattooed on his arm.

For the shattered ‘number’ who once upon a time, in a different life, in a different world, had been Dr. Viktor Frankl, the moment of truth came when the one remaining possession that he valued above all others, the manuscript that recorded all his previous life’s research, was stripped from him along with his clothes, and he was given the rags of another. For a moment he felt that all meaning had been ripped from his life, that there was nothing left for him to do, and then thrusting his hands into the pockets of his new rags he found a piece of crumpled paper. Carefully and curiously unfolding it, he found that it was a page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book bearing the words of the fundamental Jewish declaration of faith known as the ‘Shema’ commencing with words that might be rendered as “Harken to this, O! You who wrestle with God and Man, and in that wrestling find both yourself and God”.

Whilst meditating upon the providential incident of the prayer, Dr. Frankl realised that the destruction of his manuscript did not negate the meaning of his life. For the prayer found in his rags could only be interpreted as a command to realise his work in action, not only to maintain his own dignity and integrity as a human being, but also that of his fellow prisoners.

In the terrible attempts to dehumanise Man in the Nazi death camps, Dr. Frankl saw for himself the ultimate result of that pagan and materialistic philosophy that reduces Man to a mere pawn of conditioning circumstances. This led him to make his great contribution to humanise psychiatry through Logotherapy.

Logotherapy is concerned with uncovering the ‘Unique Meaning’ for the concrete situation facing this person at this moment in time. It suggests that although ‘meaning’ in the human dimension is not the same as ‘meaning’ in the Divine dimension, nevertheless part of the concept of Man created in the Divine Image suggests that one of his faculties, if not indeed the most humanly important, is his capacity to invest his personal life with meaning.

Dr. Frankl describes his experiences with patients who were on the verge of suicide and who had to be helped to find a reason for living: — patients who were crippled with phobias and who had to be helped to use their sense of humour to conquer their fears: — patients who were depressed and apathetic, and who had to be helped to find a new meaning in life itself. In these case histories Many of those who suffer acute depression, can find their own problems set out and analysed.

In his book, and others that he wrote, Dr. Frankl reminds us again and again that the one freedom that can never be taken away from us is our freedom to choose our attitudes in the face of our circumstances. In the death camps he found that:

‘They who have a WHY to live for can bear with almost any HOW’.

‘As long as one could find some personal meaning in life, as long as one could find a reason for continuing to fight on against apathy and despair – whether it be for someone or something beyond themselves.

For just so long could one retain an amazing power of  endurance’.

 

This is a philosophy that can do so much to sustain us in those moments of darkness and loss of faith when they befall us.

 

I have written a little booklet that includes the quotations that I have used and goes more deeply into some of these points, particularly the teachings of Dr Viktor Frankl. It is available free by e-mail in PDF format, and I will be pleased to send you a copy if you would write your name and e-mail address on the sheet that I have provided. I will leave it on the table for you to fill in at your convenience

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Thank you for listening to me, and now it is time for your own contributions from where you stand, or the questions that you would like to ask.

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