“A Holistic Creature Loves and Suffers Holistically” – Dominick D. Hankle PhD
Suffering, like all human experience, tends to get compartmentalized into one area of human existence. We think of suffering as being purely emotional and therefore only impacting us emotionally. That’s a real problem because human beings are not compartmentalized creatures, we are holistic creatures in which one facet of human life impacts the other. We can’t isolate emotional pain or joy from its impact on other areas of living. We have to recognize people are complete units consisting of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits. An impact in one area impacts the others. This holistic experience of human life reflects some key ideas of how Christianity views people.
The Christian religion is a sacramental or if you prefer “incarnational” religion. It’s not a religion of hyper-spirituality in which there is an overemphasis on the spiritual nature of things over other areas of human existence. Christians fought against the Gnostics and Neoplatonists to ensure creation (Our physical world) is recognized as “good” and essential to human flourishing. Christians find in the created order an importance equal to that of the spiritual realm.
Psychological anthropology defines the human person from a psychological, biological, and sociological perspective. This helps psychologists understand the complexity of human thinking and behavior. Physiology, cognitive processes, and personal relationships are factors contributing to what human beings think and do. It also reminds us that the experiences we have are not isolated to one facet of human existence. A number of Christian academics have broadened that anthropological definition to include the spiritual dimension thus advocating for a bio/psycho/social/spiritual model for understanding human behavior, particularly in regards to psychological abnormality (Yarhouse, Butman & McRay, 2005). In addition, secular psychologists such as Len Sperry (2012) have advocated for a spiritually oriented approach to psychotherapy demonstrating a continued need to include a more holistic approach to understanding human beings. This more holistic approach implies healing can be facilitated for emotional pain by helping the client explore relationships with others and caring for his or her physical health as much as exploring emotions in a therapy setting. I’ve advocated for a similar model, but instead of lumping emotional aspects of the human person into the general psychological category I expand the psychological describing human experience as more of a bio/cognitive/emotional/social/spiritual/ model, separating cognitive aspects from emotional ones. Emotions transcend the cognitive and physiological aspects of human experience, therefore, I believe they require a separate category for consideration (Hankle, 2012).
All of this is to imply people consist of bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and spirits and that when something happens in one area of their existence it impacts the others. You can’t just isolate joy or pain in one area, it impacts all of them. When you’re sad it impacts how you feel physically, the things you think about, your interactions with other people, and your transcendent spiritual life. Your whole being experiences sadness. Because of that, suffering impacts all of who you are as well. If you’ve ever been so depressed or sad and said you can feel it in your stomach, you know what I’m talking about. Emotional pain is often described as having “A broken heart” to reflect the physical nature of the emotional experience. When we talk about suffering we often say things like “My spirit is troubled”, reflecting the holistic experience of struggling. All of this is to remind us when we suffer and grieve the loss of a loved one, a marriage, or any other tragedy, we suffer holistically. This is important to remember because when we begin talking about healing we’re going to do so from a holistic perspective. The idea that grief therapy works best by talking with someone about your emotions and healing only your emotional life is somewhat limited and reflects a very reduced view of what it means to be human. Grief is holistic and an important aspect of healing from not just the death of a loved one, but also the loss of a number of things. Before we move on we need a deeper understanding of grief, loss, and healing to broaden our understanding of what it means to suffer from the loss of someone or something important in our lives. We will do that in the next post. For now, understand that when we suffer we do so with everything we are and that’s why grief is so crippling.