Resilience and Suffering

An interview with Dr. Elizabeth Hall on how to move through—and past—suffering.

Posted Jan 22, 2019

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my new book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, used by permission
Source: M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, used by permission

Today’s interview is on the subject of suffering and features Dr. M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, who is a psychology professor at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, where she teaches in the undergraduate program. In addition to teaching, she maintains a small clinical practice. Her empirical research focuses on women's issues, topics at the intersection of psychology and Christianity, and meaning-making in suffering. Dr. Hall has published over 80 articles and book chapters on these topics. She has served as president for Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association and is associate editor for Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.  

JA: How do you personally define suffering?  How does suffering differ from pain?  

EH: "Suffering" is often used interchangeably with "pain," but in my view this is a mistake. There are kinds of suffering that do not necessarily cause psychological or physical pain (e.g., quick, perhaps relatively painless death in an explosion), and there are kinds of pain that are not suffering (e.g., pain endured voluntarily during childbirth). I like the way philosopher Eleanor Stump thinks about suffering, framing it as a violation of what we care about most deeply, what she calls "the desires of our heart" (Wandering in Darkness, 2006, p. 7). We suffer when we fail to get an outcome we care about deeply, or when we lose something we care about deeply. 

This definition clarifies the role of pain in suffering. Physical pain may be associated with the cause of our suffering, as when a painful injury results in the loss of a dream of an athletic career. Or it may occur concurrently with suffering, as when a life-threatening medical illness requires a painful treatment. But we don't typically refer to mere physical pain as suffering; if the athlete knows that he or she will recover quickly, there is pain, but not suffering. Psychological pain is more often the result of suffering. That is, it’s common for emotional distress to arise from suffering. For example, loss of a loved one hurts and may even lead to complicated bereavement.  

JA: What sort of things can people do to cope with suffering?  

EH: This is a broad question, and may depend a great deal on the source of the suffering. But in general terms, an understanding of suffering as the loss of the desires of the heart means that grieving the loss will be an important part of coping with suffering. 

When we lose the desires of our heart, it has ripple effects on the fabric of the rest of our life. Even after grieving our losses, there is much coping work to be done in the form of re-weaving our lives, patching the holes of the lost desire, finding new purposes in life when the old ones are gone, etc. This re-weaving is a kind of coping that in psychology we call "meaning-making." As we take the time to grieve the losses and grapple with their consequences for our lives, we engage in the process of reconciling the suffering with our understanding of the world, or alternatively changing our understanding of the world to accommodate our suffering.  

JA: Any advice how we might support a friend or loved one who might be suffering?  

EH: We sometimes think that the best thing we can do for someone who is suffering is to help them see the bright side of things, or distract them from their suffering. While both of these may have a place in recovery, they can also get in the way of healthy processing that helps make meaning of the suffering. In fact, there is some evidence that these distancing maneuvers can lead to a kind of "rebound effect," in which the sufferer’s intrusive (and less helpful) forms of processing actually increase.

Unfortunately, our societal bent is to move quickly away from suffering. But people who are suffering need someone who is willing to listen to them empathically, who will not move away from their suffering, and who will patiently endure the often repetitive processing involved in meaning-making.  

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to suffering?  

EH: A number of studies have shown that in times of crisis, people who are more religious do better than those who are less religious, and report greater meaning after traumatic events. But religions are not generic; they are particular. People are not generically religious; they are followers of a particular religious tradition. While all religions provide a meaning system for understanding suffering and practices for coping with it, they do this in a diversity of ways. My research attempts to dig into the resources that one particular religion, Christianity, offers to those who suffer. I am interested in the particular Christian beliefs, practices, and values that people draw on in meaning-making, and how these are related to outcomes.