Is compassion really about reducing pain?

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In part because of the philosophy of hedonism that subtly influences our modern worldview (as well as often our understanding of the Gospel), many believe that if we truly love others, we will always do whatever we can to reduce their discomfort and suffering. We often think of “compassion” as taking pity on those who hurt and working to remove the causes of their pain, treating pain and suffering are mere symptoms to be alleviated. This worldly view of compassion and love can be illustrated in the way many psychologists approach therapy, and can give us insight into how “therapeutic deism” comes about.

In contrast, the scriptures teach that compassion does not always seek to removethe pains of another. Pain and suffering can play a vital role in our spiritual development. Compassion, in this view, involves a willingness to suffer with others as they walk their road through Gethsemane. One consequence of this view is that it invites us to re-examine how we understand the role of the therapist.  This scriptural view of compassion suggests that therapists, counselors, and ministers might better be thought of as “watchful companions” who stand in a compassionate relationship with their clients rather than in a solely remedial role; that is, they would seek to alleviate pain when useful and appropriate, but are also willing to suffer with their clients when their pain has (or can have) meaning and purpose.

The Hidden Assumption: Compassion as Pain Reduction

Love and compassion lead us to reduce and eliminate the suffering of others.

In a previous installment (here), we explored the philosophical and cultural assumption of hedonism, the belief that happiness is defined by positive emotional experiences and that such experiences are our highest goal in life. This view subtly informs our expectations of life and of the Gospel. For example, it can lead us to assume that Gospel promises us unending enjoyment and freedom from pain. It can also lead us to assume that God is a bit like a cosmic therapist, someone who wants little more than to reduce the feelings of discomfort in our lives for us, or that loving others means striving to reduce and eliminate their discomfort and pain for them, as quickly and efficiently as possible so that they can get on with the business of having a pleasant life full of positive emotional experiences.

We can see this in the way we sometimes interpret the word “compassion.” To have compassion on someone who is suffering is often taken to mean that we immediately seek to eliminate or reduce their pain, by the best and most effective means available. We can illustrate this assumption by exploring how it manifests in psychology and therapy. Therapists often treat pain- and symptom-reduction as the strongest and only measure of therapeutic success. As I (Ed Gantt) have written elsewhere:  “It is with this view that psychotherapists so often set their agenda solely in terms of how to most effectively mitigate—if not terminate—the various forms of psychologically relevant human suffering.”((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, p. 54.))

This is a result of the fact that many therapeutic approaches endorse what is known as the “medical model.” The medical model is a treatment perspective that seeks to identify presenting symptoms so as to facilitate the diagnosis of an underlying problem or cause of suffering so that it can be directly treated with proper techniques, and thereby, alleviate suffering and distress. That the medical model reduces the complexities of the meaningfulness of our actual experience of suffering to “the status of symptom is almost never questioned, and neither is the notion that the first order of therapeutic business is the elimination of such symptoms. Suffering is not to be taken at face value, nor is it thought to possess any intrinsic meaning or significance.”((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press)) Ultimately, in such a view, it is thought that “emotional and psychological suffering are diseases and ‘should be considered medical illnesses just as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are.’”((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, p. 65.))

It is difficult to find a popular, widely used theory or therapy in psychology that does not presume that pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness are the core values in life, or that suffering or pain have little value except as a signal that treatment is needed. Consider, for example, the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) of Albert Ellis, an approach that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s and which is not only still widely used but which has exerted enormous influence on mainstream therapeutic approaches. Ellis explicitly maintained that “one of the basic philosophic aspects of rational-emotive therapy . . . is an emphasis on hedonism, pleasure, and happiness.”((Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy, p. 336.))  He further maintained that this view was not in anyway outside the normal frame of therapeutic assumptions because:

just about all existing schools of psychotherapy are, at bottom, hedonistic, In that they hold that pleasure or freedom from pain is a principle good and should be the aim of thought and action. . . . The rational-emotive therapist, therefore, is far from unique when he accepts some kind of a hedonistic world-view and tries to help his patients adopt a workable hedonistic way of life.((Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy, p. 363.))

Now, this doesn’t mean that Ellis advocated a self-destructive or thoughtlessly indulgent lifestyle. To the contrary, he taught his clients to adopt a long-term hedonism.  That is, he taught his clients to think of managing their lives in terms of long-term goals of personal happiness and satisfaction, rather than merely satisfying the desires of the present moment. Whatever the strategy, however, the stated end of changing the client’s value systems and thought constructs is to lessen pain by reducing personal feelings of unhappiness, replacing them with more positive emotional experiences.

Even therapeutic approaches that reject some, if not most or all, of the techniques and explicit assumptions of the Rational-Emotive approach and its many related forms of therapy (e.g., Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), nonetheless manifest an underlying commitment to the assumption of hedonism. For example, many therapists adopt what is known as an “eclectic” approach to treatment, an approach in which the principal strategy of therapy is “if it works, use it.” However, the questions of “what does ‘it works’ mean?” and “to what end does something in therapy ‘work’?” are almost always answered in terms of maximizing client happiness by decreasing their personal pain and discomfort as efficiently and quickly as possible. Similarly, psychopharmacological approaches to therapy, so-called “drug therapies,” are primarily devoted to identifying symptom patterns so as to determine the presence of some underlying medical condition thought to be responsible for those symptoms (i.e., one’s experience of sadness, worry, anxiety, anger, fear, etc.). In such an approach, “what works best” is whatever chemical agent eliminates the patient’s presenting symptoms more efficiently and quickly, thereby returning them to a life of more positive and personally satisfying emotional experiences.

Each of these forms of psychotherapy, as well as the vast majority of other, modern therapies, embody an underlying presumption that pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness are the core values in life, and that discomfort, pain, grief, sadness, disappointment, anxiety, fear, and so on are more or less meaningless symptoms to be alleviated. Indeed, the only meaning that such things can have is that they can serve as a “signpost” that points beyond themselves to the real underlying problems that must be addressed.  In and of themselves, however, experiences such as grief, sadness, disappointment and fear have no real meaning or purpose. They are simply unfortunate correlates (side-effects) of deeper, more real problems that are thought to be the more appropriate focus of therapeutic concern.

Interestly, psychotherapy is not the only arena in which we can see this assumption at work. It is easy to see it play out on a theological level as well.  For example, many people struggle to answer the question of how it is possible that a truly loving God could allow his children to suffer? Even if we can explain moral evil through human agency, many people (whether professional theologians or just ordinary folks) grapple with what they call “the problem of natural evil.” This refers to suffering caused through non-human means, such as disease, famine, natural disasters, accidents, and such. A benevolent and powerful God, they argue, is incompatible with the scale of human suffering we see in the world. From this view, any being with the power to reduce human suffering would do so, if they were perfectly loving. To love someone means to want to reduce their pain by taking all available measures to do so, if not eliminating it all together.

An Alternative: Scriptural Compassion

True compassion can involve watchfully and patiently suffering with others, not merely seeking ways to take away their pain.

In contrast to the philosophy of hedonism, the Gospel of Jesus Christ invites us to see pain as more than just a symptom to be alleviated. It is the simple recognition that not all human suffering and pain is something that should be approached simply as some unnecessary or meaningless thing to be anesthetized or eliminated as quickly and efficiently as possible. For example, someone grieving at the loss of a spouse would lose something tremendously important if someone were to give them an emotional analgesic that made them feel nothing at all until the grief had passed. As former BYU psychologist Brent D. Slife has written:

Suffering may have all sorts of divine purposes and meanings, from refining one’s Christianity, to teaching an old-fashioned lesson, to understanding more fully Christ’s atonement. Getting rid of this type of suffering would be, in effect, getting rid of a crucial part of Christ’s relationship with Christian families.((Slife, B. D. “Modern and postmodern value centers for the family.” In conference, “Disenchantments with Modernism,” Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. 1997.))

From a scriptural point of view, pain can serve as an occasion to become more godly as people. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that experiencing suffering, pain, and heartache is part of the reason we came to earth. He wrote:

Being human, we would expel from our lives sorrow, distress, physical pain, and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort. But if we closed the doors upon such, we might be evicting our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery. The sufferings of our Savior were part of his education.((Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (1982), 168.))

Similarly, I (Gantt) have argued elsewhere:  “Holy scripture clearly teaches that suffering is not “some sort of absurdity” . . .  to be overcome or managed or even anesthetized. Rather, scripture teaches us that suffering is a challenge to be lived, an obligation to be shouldered, a meaning to be found.”((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, p. 67.)) When experiencing abject conditions in Liberty Jail, and being weighed down with sorrow for the plight of the saints in Missouri, Joseph Smith asked God for relief. In response, God replied that although “the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee. . . . All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

In some Christian traditions, pain and suffering are thought to be consequences of man’s rebellion against God, echoes of the original sin of Adam and Eve, which introduced pain and suffering in the world. Without that cosmic mistake, mankind might be living in a paradise, free of conflict and suffering. The restoration of the Gospel tilts this on its head — the introduction of death (and all the pain and suffering that comes along with mortality) were part of God’s plan for us. We were meant to come into a mortality that is filled with the possibility of tremendous pain, suffering, heartache, and grief.

In other words, instead of some “natural evil” that is incompatible with a benevolent God, pain and suffering might in fact be one of the purposes of mortality. God may allow us to suffer because that suffering is precisely what we need to become sanctified as people and to learn what it is to be like God. He allows us to hurt because He loves us. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”((Lewis, C. S. (2001). Grief Observed. Zondervan.)) In other words, not all pain and suffering is necessarily evil or to be avoided. In some cases, suffering:

can play a vital role in our salvation – though not merely as a test of moral character or of the capacity for endurance.  Rather, for the Christian, suffering is a powerful way in which one can come to understand and experience the depth of Heavenly Father’s love for his children. Suffering, though not something we seek for its own sake, nonetheless can provide — in some small and incomplete way — insight into the infinite suffering experienced by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on our behalf, as well as a clearer understanding of the infinite love that motivated such suffering.((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, p. 68.))

The Atonement of Jesus Christ highlights the way in which suffering can serve eternal purposes. God Himself experiences tremendous sorrow on our behalf — we read that He weeps for His children when they commit sin — and sent His son to suffer for us so that we can return to live with Him. Most of us, for example, would recognize the foolishness of approaching Christ in prior to Gethsemane and offering Him antidepressants to level out his emotional ups and downs. We recognize this because we understand the eternal significance of the pain He felt, and we recognize that to undo that pain could foil the very Plan of Salvation itself.

So what are we to do when we encounter human suffering? We would argue that the fundamental question is not how suffering is to be alleviated, but rather, and far more vitally, how is another’s suffering to be addressed in the community of faith and in the context of Christlike compassion. For example, we might seek to measure therapeutic success in more ways than just increases in positive affect and satisfaction and decreases in emotional pain and distress. To us, addressing the suffering of others as disciples of Christ involves more than merely reducing the symptoms in the most efficient manner possible.  We are not, of course, suggesting that we ought not be all that concerned with alleviating the suffering and pain of others. Quite the contrary! As I (Gantt) have noted:

The proper way to address the suffering of others may be, in many instances, to do all we can to ease it.  After all, Isaiah demands that we “relieve the oppressed and “plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17), while Alma commands us to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9).

However, we should be careful not to read into these and other prophetic injunctions a simplistic — and ultimately hollow — hedonism.  Instead, we must realize that mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort may well involve a great deal more of us than alleviating their suffering.  It may also involve a commitment to suffer with them in their trials as they struggle to find meaning in them.  It may demand that we truly do take upon ourselves one another’s burdens and thereby open ourselves to the glorious possibilities of a genuinely loving and Christlike relationship.((Gantt, E. E. (2005).  Hedonism, suffering and redemption:  The challenge of a Christian psychotherapy.  Reprinted in A. Jackson & L. Fischer (Eds.), Turning Freud upside down:  Gospel perspectives on psychotherapy’s fundamental problems (pp. 52-79).  Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, p. 68.))

For example, the appropriate response is sometimes to do as Christ Himself asked of His apostles:  “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). When His apostles failed to do this, “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). God sent a messenger, an angel, to be with His Son in the midst of His sufferings — to comfort Him, to share a little of His pain with Him — but more than anything, to provide companionship in the darkest moment of His life. Similarly, we think that the role of a therapist, a ecclesiastical leader, a friend, or a companion is to be with those who grieve and suffer, to mourn with them, to help them find meaning, peace, and communion with God in the midst of their pain.

Now, we do not want to be misunderstood:  not all emotional pain and psychological distress is eternally significant. There are genuine cases where the most loving thing one can do for another person is to alleviate their needless suffering as quickly and efficiently as possible. We simply wish to suggest the possibility that each of us may, at times, need to pass through our own Gethsemanes at some point our lives, that there may be periods of grief, distress, heartache, and perhaps even protracted periods of emotional malaise that may sometimes be important to our own personal growth and spiritual development and maturity. And, as such, they are not really comparable to the pain we might feel when we break a limb (to which we normally attach no eternal significance), to be anesthetized and alleviated at our soonest convenience.

We are also not dismissing the possible value of pharmaceutical approaches to treating clinical depression and other emotional ailments. There are, for example, depressive experiences so deep and so profound (and so profoundly debilitating) that they should be examined using a medical paradigm. We are embodied beings, and human emotion is strongly related to our physiology. When our bodies do not function as they should, it can significantly handicap our ability to emotionally respond the way we wish or should — just as a broken leg might interfere with our ability to run or play basketball. There are times when we experience persistent, debilitating negative affect that is not warranted by our circumstances or the events in our lives. Elder Holland taught that, in these times, we should:

[S]eek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. … Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders.((Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” Ensign, November 2013.))

So again, our argument is not that pain should never be alleviated. Our argument, rather, is simply that not all pain is merely a symptom to be alleviated, and our current array of diagnostic measures and cultural understandings may rely too heavily on the assumption of hedonism to always discern the difference. Experiencing grief at the loss of a loved one, for example, is perhaps essential. So too might the experience of guilt be essential (especially in regards to sin). Or, the dissatisfaction and general malaise of a life wasted on self-indulgent leisure. Any approach to these issues that relies on solely on checklists of symptoms rather than on spiritual intuition and divine guidance will likely never move much beyond the narrow and soul-numbing confines of the philosophy of hedonism.

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