ATLANTA, Georgia, APRIL 6, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Many risk factors for depression can also be valuable assets for personal and communal spiritual growth, says a Catholic psychologist.
Dr. Ann Howe, a psychologist for 25 years, is the director of the Archdiocese of Atlanta counseling center Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services.
She shared her experiences with ZENIT on the significance of suffering and depression in a person’s psychological and spiritual flourishing.
Q: What is the general attitude of psychology toward the problem of suffering?
Howe: First of all, psychology would traditionally have avoided a word such as “suffering.”
Psychology has striven to present itself as a science and has distanced itself from the humanities. Therefore, the language used by psychologists shies away from words such as suffering which are evocative and instead uses language which is precise and measurable.
Suffering can’t be measured except through the lens of the person’s experience, and suffering can’t be understood except through the eyes of faith.
All that being said, let’s assume that psychologists could agree about what constitutes suffering. Let’s say they agree that suffering, for example, is measurable through self-report as “life distress” or some such euphemism. Then, psychology’s position would more than likely be that suffering is bad in an absolute sense and should be eliminated whenever possible.
Some psychologists might take a more nuanced approach; for example, when they could easily find positive consequences. Take homework: We know most children don’t like homework, and “suffer” with it, but we all understand that some pain in this area can lead to positive results, namely, increased knowledge.
Psychologists would then wonder about how to motivate someone to sustain performance during a time of “suffering.” Here, suffering is seen as a means to an end.
But once again, suffering in and of itself would never be regarded as having any positive benefits.
Q: How does a Catholic perspective on psychology change the understanding of human suffering?
Howe: The Catholic position is quite different. When the supernatural reality of who man is in relation to God is understood, suffering has to be seen in a supernatural dimension.
As Catholics we understand that suffering can have many “positive” functions. It is not only an opportunity to correct parts of our character which need to be strengthened or put on a proper path, but it can also be used to expiate sins, both personal and communal.
When we recognize the person as a son or daughter of God, and acknowledge that God sent his only Son into human history for the redemption of souls, we come to appreciate that suffering allows us to be linked to Christ in the continuing work of bringing souls to the Father through the action of the Holy Spirit.
As a psychologist working with clients, I seek to help alleviate unnecessary suffering, or that which the individual has inflicted upon himself or herself through bad choices. Many times difficult life circumstances can cause a person to choose despair, to turn away from God.
Whatever the source of the suffering, however, God is the answer. The psychologist mainly acts to support the client in their journey and also remove the impediments to the person’s growth toward happiness.
As a Catholic, I believe that happiness can only be found ultimately by resting in God’s love and obeying his commandments.
Q: What is the relationship between suffering and depression?
Howe: Depression is the result of life’s seemingly impossible problems.
Every person faces challenges both external and internal. When there is a problem that can’t be fixed, the person, depending on their temperament and the importance of the situation, will try to keep solving the problem till things improve.
Depression is the result of a problem that can’t be fixed. These problems can be something external and beyond our control, like a physical illness or natural disaster, or something buried deep inside our emotions like an old hurt or loss.
Depression, in other words, is never meaningless. It has a context in which it develops and has real consequences for the quality of the person’s life, especially their relationships.
When a person finds his or her way through depression, it can also result in personal transformation and a deeper appreciation for life.
Q: What are the benefits of suffering from a psychological perspective?
Howe: Like all suffering, we can magnify our own distress by resisting and pulling away from God.
It is often hard for the person to see that God’s love is being shared with them through the action of others, like family, friends, and therapist. Good comes out of the person’s suffering, by encouraging a cleansing of old bad habits and the renewal of deeper bonds with others.
Depression and other forms of psychological pain make receiving and giving love difficult, but God’s love is always present and surrounding that individual.
Good also can come from suffering because the person is forced to confront their helplessness in bringing about their own happiness. They often discover for the first time that they truly are dependent in all things on God’s merciful care.
Q: For people who suffer from long-term depression, over the course of their whole lives, how can they integrate it with their spiritual life?
Howe: Depression signifies a person who is restless for peace, joy and the experience of love.
Depression can be viewed as a “trial” which challenges the individual to know themselves, and to lovingly accept themselves and others.
Depression might never be conquered for some people, but it can be laid at the foot of the cross, confident that God will put some good use to it.
Many depressed people are very sensitive and astute in their observations of others; they can have much to offer others in the way of empathy and compassion. Many depressed people are intellectual and analytical, and can use their passion for answers to many good purposes.
In other words, many of the personality characteristics which can lead someone to be vulnerable to depression can be valuable assets to the community and to the spiritual life.
Q: Is it more beneficial then to work to alleviate the suffering of others, or to help them accept their suffering?
Howe: Suffering is a fact of life, and life often holds more than most people care to experience.
The answer to the question is that of course we should work to alleviate suffering as a means to make God’s loving presence known to others. Yet, the question of acceptance must go hand in hand.
It is only by accepting the mystery of suffering as a consequence of the human condition that we can trust God, trust one another, and trust in the capacity that good truly will come out of difficult and painful experiences.