Saint Silouan makes a distinction between kinds of suffering, based on his own experience as he related it in his story of the fish-bone and the headaches. Renos Papadopoulos applies this teaching to his own practice in working with refugees, by adapting St. Silouan’s recognition of this distinction into an epistemological distinction as to the variety of way’s one can conceptualize suffering. Renos explains that we as care-givers should recognize the fact that suffering is not always “something we should get rid of” but that it can have important and life-changing meaning for the person undergoing it.
Renos says that we can look at suffering, or adversity, which we encounter in our lives as potentially positive, rather than seeing it entirely negatively, which is often how the helping professions approach suffering. Renos encourages us, based on the teaching of Saint Silouan, to seek out God’s will in our suffering, because this can expand our perspective on adversity. By understanding God’s love for us and His will for us, which is always a will for our good, this can mitigate our negative feelings towards suffering and open the door for us to trust more in the process and outcome deriving from adversity, and oftentimes this can lead us to greater strength and endurance in living through suffering.
Does suffering produce endurance, as St Paul writes, or does it crush us? How we interpret suffering makes a significant difference in how we approach it in our own lives, as well as how we approach those we are helping through their own responses to adversity. The outcome of our view on suffering can make the difference, as Renos says, in whether our response becomes pathological or merely a reaction according to ordinary human distress.
Man unfortunately uses his freedom, his free will, to distance himself from God, and then adversity and suffering often further distances him from God, because of man’s negative response to adversity, and this develops into a traumatic response. But this is not always and entirely the case. Renos explains that we need to recognize the possibility however, of positive responses to adversity. In his work with refugees he sees, in every case, resilient responses and the development of new positive traits occurring within these people along with negative responses; all of these occurring simultaneously and side-by-side. If we recognize this truth we can work together with our care-recipients to discover and foster these positive responses to help them achieve greater strength and health however, by failing to recognize this possibility we can miss an important opportunity in helping people who have been through adversity.
Viewing trauma only in the typical way, as needing cure and relief, but with no other intrinsic value, causes care-givers to take actions to remedy the ‘trauma’ that are “ineffective at best, or even detrimental (ed. Welker 146).” However, by seeking God’s will and trusting that He has a plan for us in all cases, Renos explains that we can seek and access greater meaning from our suffering, and draw nearer to God as well.
I think it is important to look for each individual’s strengths and help create conditions for these strengths to be activated as we help others work through their responses to the inevitable sufferings of their lives. Even by simply making these strengths apparent to the one who is suffering, or simply noting the possibility that strengths do exist within them, can be of great benefit to the one who may be lost in the despair and weakness of their situation.
Renos sees the Spirit having a dimension and power that can transform “an impossibly bleak situation devoid of hope and realistic resolution [into] an unexpected epiphany, indeed, the transformative power of the cross that enables Christ to ‘overcome death by death’ (ed. Welker 144-145). Saint Silouan’s teaching on suffering opens us to understand that suffering isn’t always negative. Based on this concept Renos developed the ‘Adversity Grid’ to illustrate the complexity in human responses to suffering, showing that responses can be neutral or even positive in reaction to adverse events.
In applying St Silouan’s teaching to ‘keep thy mind in hell and despair not’ Renos describes how this can help us recognize both the importance of ‘hellish’ experiences and also that these experiences can have positive effects (ed. Welker 151), that hell-states can be meaningful, and that understanding them in this way can facilitate positive transformation (153) and even that these hell-states can be the impetus for the growth of new positive traits within us that otherwise wouldn’t have been born (155).
As care-givers we can apply these teachings and insights in order to help those we serve to see suffering in another way, and encourage them to use their experiences with adversity in positive ways that can be transformational and healing. As Renos writes: “St Silouan’s dictum…encourages us not only not to run away from the excruciatingness of these hell situations but also to trust that this very persistent focus on the awfulness of the situation will activate a certain process of transcendence that will bring about a radical transformation, a paradigmatic shift, resulting in a new epistemology that will enable access to healing from sources and in ways that our previous state of being could not even have registered before (ed. Welker 154).”
Renos Papadopoulos (2018). “Compliance and Resistance: the Psychological Perspective.”
Papadopoulos, R.K. “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not: implications for psychosocial work with survivors of political violence.” The Spirit in Creation and New Creation. Michael Welker, Ed. Eerdmans Publishing. 2016.