As a child, I could not quite understand why Good Friday was not named Terrible Friday by Christians, given that the day is given to the crucifixion and not the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It finally clicked that for Christians, hopefulness was deeply embedded even within Jesus´s death, as his death was not the end. To satiate my sweet tooth, Easter has mostly been about chocolate, but I am also intrigued by the theme of hopefulness embedded within this important religious period, particularly as death is an unavoidable outcome for us all. None of us have a choice but to deal with the fact that every special person, every wonderful experience and everything we love in this world will eventually end.
Many of us turn to grief counselling, which is in huge demand as loss is part of the human condition, and more so, recently since the pandemic. Psychological practitioners and mental health services have, in the last two years, been oversubscribed and we see many people near breaking point unable to access services. A ´collective trauma´ or ´anxiety pandemic´ has become the talking point amongst us, referring to an increase in human suffering. And so, more and more, we need to find ways to navigate the tumultuous waves caused by our inner, sometimes, unmanageable anguish.
Is it possible for all of us, atheists, agnostics, other faith followers included, to take a lesson from Easter´s theme and hold a sense of hope around death and grief? Even, with the belief in some sort of afterlife, many people struggle with grief and death. Author C.S Lewis, well known for his belief in Christianity, wrote beautifully about the lack of consolation from religion, after losing his beloved wife, in “A Grief Observed”:
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand”.
There are two issues arising. First, that suffering loss is endemic to being human, and second, we struggle to manage that suffering. In today´s culture, pain, suffering, worries, and grief have become things to fight, beat, conquer — and to anesthetise as quickly as possible. Many of us, like addicts, are looking for a quick fix. Alcohol. Drugs. Food. Exercise. Sex. Shopping. Disposable relationships. Whatever it takes to not feel bad, sad, or hurt. But the more we run from these life experiences, the more we become unable to manage them and the less hopefulness we hold. Perhaps, if we stop fighting this inevitable part of life, and instead, we accept the suffering, we might learn how to manage it, setting ourselves free from this vicious energy-sapping cycle. And looking to C.S Lewis again, “…there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…”
When we suffer our suffering, it is only then after time do we rise out of it, much like a personal resurrection. These words of advice may feel masochistic or it may feel like I´m being sadistic, but they are age-old words that have been repeated since humans have existed – Buddhism, too, declares that “life is suffering”.
There are three tools amongst others that I use almost daily in my clinical practice. One is a story which serves as a reminder on how to accept life´s suffering and the second on how to manage that suffering so that it doesn’t feel unbearable. And finally, the third is a tool to help you feel more resourceful. These tools can help you help yourself in times of need:
- Accepting Life´s Suffering without Fear
A Chinese farmer has a horse, which runs away just as he needs it for reaping the crops. A neighbour says, “That’s such bad luck.” The farmer replies,
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
A week later, the horse comes back and brings another horse with him. “You are so lucky, the neighbours say, now you can work faster”. The farmer says,
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg.
“So sorry for your bad luck, now you must work alone,” say the concerned neighbours. “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” the farmer replies.
In a week or so, war breaks out and the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared as he cannot walk.
“You are always so lucky”, say the saddened neighbours, the farmer replies,
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
This story reminds us we can gently distance ourselves from fear of suffering whilst accepting the suffering.
- Healthy Compartmentalisation
We all have moments when we have to put aside our emotions to get on – with work, travelling on public transport, caring for young children or even attending a friend’s birthday party. In these moments we are compartmentalising. This is an incredible skill for managing suffering. This is not to be confused with denial, which is an unhealthy compartmentalisation. Healthy compartmentalisation is a useful skill to practice consciously if we find we are really struggling with overwhelming emotion, overthinking or suffering. To do this consciously we may take the following steps:
- Identify the circumstances or situation and associated emotions and/or thoughts that need compartmentalising
- Label and this and put in a box in your mind or on paper – you may have more than one box!
- Allocate a time, (and stick with this), to unpack the box and deal with each aspect of the situation slowly and accurately
- Close each box before moving onto dealing with another box
- Don´t multitask and deal with more than one box at a time
You will get better at compartmentalisation as you practice this skill.
- Look to Your Moments of Strength
This step is really simple but highly effective. Almost every day one of my clients will make a global judgment about themselves, like “I´ve got low self-esteem” or “I´m not confident”, “I´m anxious”.
I remind my clients to be specific and completely honest with themselves by adding the word …sometimes. So, sometimes I feel I have low self-esteem, sometimes I lack confidence, and sometimes I feel anxious. This accuracy leaves room for you to remember that there are moments when you have felt differently and then we can visit those occasions and talk about them and learn from them. We look to our moments of strength. What can we learn about that time when you felt so confident that day? Let´s remember it was you and not an alien who had abducted you! And so, we learn you had the capacity to feel healthy self-esteem, be confident, and feel calm and this means if you can do feel it once you can feel it again!
In a nutshell human life involves enduring some suffering but you, as a human are built to manage this. And when you do this you can feel hopeful. Feliz Páscoa.
By Farah Naz
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Farah Naz is a UK trained Psychotherapist of more than 30 years, and is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, with a special interest in neuroscience. She has worked with thousands of people globally for a range of issues. Farah has trained national organisations, corporate companies, doctors, teachers and health workers on psychological-related issues. Currently, she has an online international practice and a private practice in the Algarve.
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