Making suffering sufferable: the challenge to psychoanalysis conceived as a spiritual discipline

Helping people to endure and possibly surmount their suffering is the heart of all versions of clinical psychoanalysis. By comparing the psychoanalytic intellectual and the believers, mainly devout Jews, in the extreme situation of the Nazi concentration camp, I have tried to demonstrate some of the limitations of psychoanalysis, as a symbolic world, in helping individuals to sustain themselves as persons, and to maintain their autonomy, integration, and humanity. These are the same goals all analysands have when they suffer, whether they are facing suffering caused by the external world, such as “when rocks fall from the sky,” or suffering caused by others, or when faced by suffering in their internal world, such as neurotic misery. The testimonials of camp inmates and survivors of the concentration camps, of believers and non-believers, strongly suggest that something crucial is missing (or at least is underdeveloped) in the “mainstream” psychoanalytic “way of looking at life.” Its “particular manner of construing the world,” its “vision of reality” (and meaning and value), and the technology of self that it advocates, as it engages the problem of suffering, could benefit from spiritual expansion and deepening. My brief comments are meant to be suggestive, not definitive, of a future direction for our “under siege” discipline.

I should say from the onset that I am not going to concern myself with the abstract, theoretical theological/philosophical issues of divine justice and the problem of evil, including the various theodicies (and “antitheodicy” (Braiterman, 1998) that have been put forth. For example, from a Christian point of view, suffering conceived as part of a providential plan has been accounted for as punishment, refinement, judgment, opportunity, and suffering as a narrative that is not our own (Douthat, 2020, p. 9). Marcel believed that “Theodicy is atheism” since it views God as if He were an object, as someone “about whom” one can talk as if he were not present (speaking about God in this way is not speaking to God) (Gallagher, 1962, p. 126). Rather I want to focus on what, if anything, we psychoanalysts can learn from Buber and Marcel as they gloss the existential problem of meaning in terms of the problem of suffering in real-life circumstances. For, as I have repeatedly mentioned, Buber and Marcel were less concerned with philosophical and theological discourse than with understanding human behavior and experience within the context of situated participation. They were philosophers who personified what Hadot called “philosophy as a way of life,” who embraced an “existential attitude” that consisted of choosing “how to live human reality” according to certain values that reflected practical wisdom, and a particular form of goodness (Hadot, 1995, pp. 30,35).

For Buber and Marcel, the problem of personal suffering (roughly the problem of evil in theology/philosophy) is best understood in terms of their broadly conceived biblical perspective of existence as the dialogue between man and God, for it is within this context that transcendence (at least to some extent) is possible: “No salvation,” says Buber, “is in sight for us, however, if we are not able again ‘to stand before the face of God’ in all reality as a We—as it is written in that faithful speech that once from Israel ... started on its way” (1998, p. 108). Marcel too notes that the word transcendent does “not mean ‘transcending experience,’ but on the contrary there must exist a possibility of having an experience of the transcendent as such,” or else the word lacks intelligibility (2001a, p. 46). For Marcel, this summoning urge for transcendence reflects the pure desire that is open and receptive and infused with intelligibility (Anderson, 2006, p. 31).

Having said this, Buber and Marcel were well aware that there is no absolute answer to the problem of suffering (let alone in its diverse manifestations); it is an intractable if not eternal mystery of God (it is a mystery, not a problem, best approached through secondary rather than primary reflection in Marcel’s language). Rather, what matters is how one responds to suffering, whether it propels one to live in a more godly or holy manner, especially in terms of the communal we. For example,Buber wrote about the Book ofjob,and he seems to have credibly concluded that for the believer, “it is surrender, acceptance of the nearness of God, submission to God’s demand of love at the expense of justice, and the right to question divine justice” that is the most existentially plausible response to the mystery of suffering (Palmer, 2006, p. 198): the response that helps the believer to sustain the meaning-giving, affect-integrating, and actionguiding character of his symbolic world in the face of the “eclipse of God” (his hiddenness, if not absence). In other words, the believer has to patiently wait for God, calling to mind Samuel Becketts play Waiting for Godot, except Godot never arrives (Kaufman, 1985, p. 75). For Buber believed to the end of his life “in a transcendent being with whom he can communicate,” who was experienced as “a higher power” but who was impossible to fully grasp (1998, p. 138).

One of Bubers main insights about suffering ought to be emphasized. Like Job (and the ancient Israelites), when God never gives him an adequate response to his accusations of undeserved suffering (and in a sense all suffering feels undeserved from the perspective of the sufferer), the most summoning response is to create the will and ability to maintain the dialogue between man and God in the here-and-now. That is, “Meaning is to be experienced in living action and suffering itself, in the unreduced immediacy of the moment .... He [the suffering person] is ready to confirm with his life the meaning which he has attained” (1988, p. 35). Put differently, the commanding Voice that emanates from suffering is saying not to just passively accept one’s situation (one’s earthly circumstances), but to continue questing after a found/ created meaning to one’s suffering, as the aforementioned quote from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev powerfully attests: bearing suffering for God’s sake, a kind of “suffering love” (Buber, 1949, p. 232). Such a transcendent quest is not only likely to reduce one’s suffering as it provides a context of intelligibility, but from Buber’s point of view, it continues the dialogue, which is what really matters (i.e., with God, others and oneself), and thereby potentially opens up new life-affirming possibilities, maybe even for fashioning a more evolved self/other relation (i.e., one that points to greater beauty, truth and goodness). Redemption, whether historically (e.g., the Jewish people or humanity) or personally, whether a Heavenly Voice from the whirlwind like Job, or its silent/still aftermath, or the voice of conscience, always involves one’s personal engagement and life experience, with the fullness of one’s whole being, who can say to God (and others),Thou (Moore, 1996, p. 62).Thou points toward genuine relationship characterized by mutuality, uniqueness, and wholeness. Indeed, as Buber noted, it was Jesus (a prophet of Israel before he was Christianized/deified), “my great brother,” who personified the “immediacy with God, the great devotion” (1960, pp. 251, 247), and who preached and enacted the “perfected living together of men, the true community in which God shall have direct rule” (Friedman, 2002, p. 50). In a word, for Buber, personal suffering was best metabolized in terms of the longstanding Jewish moral vision, its possibilities and limits, rooted and affirmed in the covenant (i.e., the ongoing dialogue) with the eternal Thou.21

And yet, when one suffers, one feels a degree of despair that is very difficult, if not impossible, to bear, let alone surmount. Despair, says Marcel, is “the shock felt by the mind when it meets with ‘There is no more’” (1965a, p. 102). Or put differently, “Despair is in a certain sense the consciousness of time as closed or, more exactly still, of time as a prison” (1965b, p. 53). Despair, like depression, tends to be highly narcissistic (utterly self-absorbing and egocentric). As Marcel notes, “the essence of the act of despair” is “always capitulation before a certain fatum [literally “what has been spoken,” fate] laid down by our judgment” (1965b, p. 37). In the words of Marcel qua believer, despair is “a declaration that God has withdrawn himself from me” (ibid, p. 47). Similar to Buber, Marcel’s main concern is how one responds to despair, and he focuses on the phenomenology of hope, which is always entwined with faith and love (ibid., 46). While I previously discussed the phenomenology' of hope in Chapter 2 (The spirit of love), I will only make a few additional comments as it relates to the existential experience of suffering. It should be mentioned from the onset that the French word esperance that Marcel uses for hope also means trust, and one Marcel scholar believes it is the more apt translation (Anderson, 2006, p. 170), calling to mind Buber’s aforementioned emphasis on the traditional Jewish notion of etnunah (the unconditional deep trust in God) in the face of suffering and the “eclipse of God.”

For Marcel, hope is not what most psychoanalysts tend to think of it as, namely,“excessive hope as being pathological” (Akhtar, 2009, p. 133), such as an overindulged oral phase that leads to hyper-optimism. For Marcel, hope does not occur in the domain of “I myself” as does optimism, it is a form of communion (1965b, p. 38); hope is a defensive response against anxiety and sadness connected to castration fantasies; and hope is a manifestation of character armor that maintains reality testing. More positively, there is conscious hope that seeks the fulfillment of wishes and unconscious hope that is linked to the quest for object experiences that propel development forward (Akhtar, 2009, p. 133). While all of these formulations about hope have their benefit in certain clinical situations, they are not what Marcel was pointing towards. That is, hope is not merely subjective/psychological experience, but rather it reflects a person’s spiritual life that can at best be faintly apprehended, as with any abiding mystery of being, like fidelity, faith, and love.

For Marcel, hope is a courageous, though humble affirmation, for it upsurges when one is in captivity, whether it is the captivity associated with, for example, a life-threatening illness, the inevitability of death, intractable depression and/or anxiety or imprisonment in a concentration camp. Hope is not merely wishing for a way out of the aforementioned, but goes a step further; to hope,“to trust is to carry within me the personal assurance that however black things may seem, my present intolerable situation cannot be final; there has to be some way out” (2001b, p. 160). For example, to some extent, the person, like the camp inmate who affirms that justice will ultimately prevail in the world, be he a believer (e.g.,a Christian) or a non-believer (e.g.,a Marxist),“proclaims that this world shall come into existence,” and personifies the “prophetic nature of hope” (ibid., p. 159). In other words, while such hoping may seem like auto-suggestion or a self-fulfilling prophecy (and indeed, it sometimes has positive effects in terms of outcome, such as in illness), Marcel is suggesting something additional about the experience of hoping itself, namely, that unlike the closedness of autosuggestion and a self-fulfilling prophecy (which is a “desire” often rooted in fear that aims for a particular outcome, like getting well or liberation), it is open to something “more,” “higher” and “better” that is hard to pin down. As Marcel says, paradoxically, “the less life is experienced as a captivity the less the soul will be able to see the shining of that veiled, mysterious light, which we feel sure, without any analysis, illumines the very centre of hope’s dwelling place” (ibid., p. 32).

Anderson (2006) puts forth the view that Marcelian hoping/trusting is not a dodging of reality as analysts may think, especially when they pathologize hoping, but rather that Marcel is suggesting “that trust is grounded in an experience of being (intrinsic eternal value) in human beings, and humans have intrinsic eternal value because they are gifts from God” (ibid., p. 172).Thus, hope/trust is not a dodging of reality, but rather “a penetration into its very depths where it discovers the presence of being” (ibid., p. 173). By claiming that hope is lodged in the presence of being, Marcel means the following, perhaps one of his clearest definitions of hope: Hope “consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle [the absolute Thou] which is in connivance with me, which cannot but will that which I will, if what I will deserves to be willed and is, in fact, willed by the whole of my being” (Marcel, 1995, p. 28). Hope is always embedded in patience and humility, just as it is embedded in trust and love, that is, hope is communion (“I hope in thee for us” (Marcel, 1965b, p. 60)), it needs others, and tends to project itself far and wide, to everyone (Gallagher, 1962, pp. 74, 75).

As Anderson notes, in this view, despair is a form of betrayal of God and the moral vision of Christianity rooted in the imitation of Jesus, especially his emphasis on communal love. For it asserts that the loving God has abandoned me and I have lost trust that in this world, or the next one, I will be in eternal union with the Absolute Thou (e.g., via revelation, immortality). Similar to fidelity and love, there are people who trust, including amidst profound suffering, even death, that in the final analysis life is a meaningful gift that is not ended in death from an absolute Thou (Anderson, 2006, p. 174).Thus, the person, who in the face of despair hopes for “deliverance,” appeals to the transcendent for deliverance since he apprehends that it is the Almighty who put this urge for being, for transcendence, inside him as part of our spiritual cast of mind: “Where despair denies that anything in reality is worthy of credit, hope affirms that reality will ultimately prove worthy of an infinite credit, the complete engagement and disposal of myself” (Treanor, 2006, p. 86). In other words, hope allows one to free oneself from the horror of the past and leans into a better future. As Marcel notes, to believe in this perspective is a choice; however, the beauty, truth, and goodness in the world and the richness of the universe that one apprehends through sacred attunement point towards the summoning nature of the unconditional experience of hoping in the grace of a loving God (ibid.). As Marcel literally ends his magisterial essay A Metaphysic of Hope, he provides a summarizing definition that integrates most of what I have attempted to convey about his formulation:

We might say that hope is essentially the availability of a soul which has entered intimately enough into the experience of communion to accomplish in the teeth of will and knowledge the transcendent act—the act establishing the vital regeneration of which this experience affords both the pledge and the first fruits.

(1965, p. 67)