A PSYCHIATRIST GOES TO HELL
I do not know if there is a Hell in the afterlife, but I do know that life in the present can be a hell on earth. When I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1990 to start my career as a psychiatrist, a colleague told me that Tulsa was not just part of the “Bible Belt”, but that it was the “Bible Buckle”. Therefore, I was not surprised when many of my patients described the suffering they experienced as a living hell. I have struggled to help patients through events and emotions I cannot imagine enduring and I have experienced moments of darkness that I did not think anyone else could comprehend. For even though I am a Buddhist, I too have had times when I felt I was in hell. Hell, it would seem, welcomes all regardless of one’s religious or spiritual orientation.
My greatest teacher and guide in the exploration of hell has been a Catholic poet who died more than 600 years ago. Dante Alighieri, a connoisseur of human frailty, traveled the pathway that leads to the darkness of human suffering known as hell.
In the Inferno, Dante is forced to face the two fates that await all humankind: the inevitability of suffering and of death. Rather than avoiding or denying these certainties, how do we utilize our pain and our limitations to be a catalyst for transformation? How do we cope with the vagaries of fortune that often land us in hell? For to endlessly repeat our mistakes, without the hope of change, is the hallmark of being in hell. A friend once told me that the purpose of psychotherapy is to confront one’s omniscience, omnipotence and grandiosity. I now believe that this is one of the purposes of life.
One thing that has changed over my many years of practice and many readings of the Inferno is that I no longer feel unique in my suffering. Like Dante, I have come to realize that if we are to have any hope of ascending out of our own suffering, all of us must first descend into the conflict and confusion that blocks our way. It is only through this confrontation with the self that we are able to ascend out of the personal hell we create for others and ourselves.
Dante suggests the journey of life is one that requires honesty, courage, perseverance, compassion, and a willingness to face that which we would rather avoid. I would also add, that in my experience, a sense of humor significantly lightens the load. This struggle with oneself is a work in progress that continues until we have completed our life’s journey. The reward is not, I believe, in our destination, but in the exploration and understanding of the dark aspects of ourselves that frees us to more fully experience the love, awe, and beauty of our lives.
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