Sweet Suffering: Loss, Meaning, and the Development of Wisdom

Sweet Suffering I was born into a family with “good enough mothering, fathering, grandmothering, and grandfathering.” In short, I was securely attached. However, I often wondered why I was not as wise as my friends who had not had the benefit of secure early-life attachments. Then, in mid-life, I suffered a series of losses that upset  my complacent existence and challenged me to grow and change. “What hurts you, blesses you,” says Rumi. My ordeals helped me become more generous and compassionate. And I gained wisdom.

Developmental theorists, from Piaget to Erikson suggest that we grow through adversity. Stretched beyond our comfort zone, we become more resourceful. Through our suffering (our “passion”) we develop compassion  (“to suffer with”).  Faced with mortality, we appreciate life more fully. Reflecting on our experience gives meaning to suffering. We, ultimately, view ourselves as survivors; not victims. And the mysterious path through loss and  suffering leads to wisdom.

Attachment and loss are part of the human life cycle. Attachment theorist John Bowlby  describes the process through which we form our earliest relationships. The continuity and security of our relationships with attachment figures (commonly referred to as parents or caregivers) influences how we perceive ourselves (“Am I loveable?”); how we perceive others (“Are they trustworthy?”); and how we view the world (“Is it a safe place?”). When infants are separated from their objects of attachment they experience anxiety. If relationships are not secure or end in death or abandonment, a child feels despair and disorganization (Bonanno & Kaltman).

During the first year of life infants develop a mental prototype of primary attachment figures, which Bowlby  calls “internal working models.”  Bretherton explains that these representations are active, ongoing, and ever-evolving over the course of our lives. As we move through life the images become more complex, gaining meaning as they are shaped by our affect. (Kegan).

While a secure attachment to a primary caregiver is the ideal, Holmes assures us that infants form more than one attachment relationship. In fact, James Hillman insists that we are mothered by everything around us, from people to animals to Mother Earth. We form internal working models of many of these objects of attachment, providing us with a host of introjects. Martin Buber in I and Thou, goes on to say that we are in relationship with everything in our lives, and through our relating we experience the sacred.

Loss is an inevitable part of living. According to Viorst, “perhaps the only choice we have is to choose what to do with our dead: To die when they die. To live crippled. Or to forge, out of pain and memory, new adaptations.” Through mourning we acknowledge our pain, feel it, and live through it. Grieving lost relationship with love objects help maintain our bonds with them.  Since we internalize the people we have loved and lost, the loved object is not gone, but carried within us. By identifying with those we have lost we develop aspects of them in our personality.  Mysteriously, when others are no longer with us we may form even deeper, more soulful relationships with them. Ultimately these bonds help define and reshape who we are.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the oe’r fraught heart, and bids it break.
(William Shakespeare).

According to psychoanalytic theory, anamnesis, the process of recalling memories, is the primary agent for our healing. Telling our life story not only helps us maintain bonds with those whom we have lost, but it helps us to reconceptualize the relationship, better defining ourselves. Our character, our desires and needs are brought forth through our biography. Walter maintains that when we create a “lasting biography of the deceased we retain the other in our ongoing life on both an affective and cognitive level.”  By sharing our story with others, the story is further reconstructed and reshaped (Silverman). We often find ourselves changed at the end of the story, simply for having told it.

Fraley and Shaver explain, however, that in cases of insecure attachments, memories may be damaged in some way. When we feel abandoned by others, we ultimately abandon ourselves, cutting off feelings and detaching from our memories (Gilligan). In the process, our life stories may become “encapsulated,” and static despite other developmental changes. In such cases, Fraley and Shaver recommend that hearing and telling stories with others may recover lost memories, animating them. In the process we may establish a deeper bond with both the departed as well as others in our midst.

Though grief may be an inevitable companion to remembering, it may also loosen fixed memories, allowing them to grow and change. Studies have shown that that retelling and reconstructing our stories with feeling allows our emotional circuitry to change, giving new meaning and understanding to loss and trauma (Goleman). Because we tend to literalize memories, our emotion helps the psyche fabricate memories, weaving them into our soul’s story (Hillman). As a result a traumatic memory may become a dark yet meaningful chapter in our life story.

In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman  holds that if we could read our life story backwards it would all make sense. As we reimage and reinterpret events over time our life story takes form and defines who we are. Singer and Bluck suggest that how we remember, interpret, and create narratives of the events in our lives—the losses and lessons—allows us to “integrate past experiences with present concerns in order to shape future goals.”  They go on to say that “we make sense of our lives through a reliance on familiar plot lines, archetypal characters, and significant remembered episodes. We use these components of the life story to weave together diverse experiences into a coherent narrative that creates a sense of unity over time and a defined purpose for future action” (Singer & Bluck).  The meaning we derive from our life experiences determines how we approach the future. The events in our lives which we emphasize inform us about our values, beliefs and goals (Singer and Bluck).

Human beings are meaning-making creatures (Baumeister; Baumeister & Newman; Ochs & Capps, 1996).  Heider suggests that, when we understand events, we feel more control over our destinies and acquire hope for the future. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” (Nietzsche).

One of life’s ironies is that, like other paths to maturity, the search for wisdom is rife with sorrow, pain and sacrifice (Achenbaum). In fact we may not awaken to wisdom until after we have suffered. Erik Erikson explains that “wisdom” is derived from the Greek words “to see,” “to hear,” and “to remember”.  Seeing, hearing, and remembering the joy and pain of our lives helps us forge new adaptations (Voirst), moving us toward wisdom.

From all accounts wisdom is not synonymous with happiness. In fact, Kunzmann and Baltes found that wisdom is negatively related to values revolving around a pleasurable life and pleasurable feelings, calling it “constructive melancholy.”  Viktor Frankl’s term, “tragic optimism” touches on the same theme: we turn suffering into a human achievement; change ourselves for the better through guilt; and, by becoming aware of the transitoriness of life, are moved to take responsible action. Mysteriously, we also come to find that “loss and sorrow are replaced by something approaching joy, by a feeling of being embraced within a wider field of love, a love which seems in these moments to be without so much fear of loss” (Romanyshyn).

In the final analysis, Erik Erikson’s definition of wisdom captures life’s divine paradox: “Wisdom” is detached concern with life itself, in the face of death itself.”  Reflecting upon our lives, we can more readily accept death. Kubler-Ross  warns that denying death can lead us to live empty, purposeless lives: “It is the promise of death and the experience of dying, more than any other force in life, that can move a human being to grow” (1975, p. 117). Coming to terms with the inevitability of death can lead us to reassess priorities and gain insight into life. Embracing losses brings meaning to life. And meaning leads to wisdom.

W. H. Auden concludes

The so-called traumatic experience (in life) is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting. Had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial, in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matte.

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