I once attended a series of lectures given by a prominent Polish psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, who had written a number of books around a concept he called “positive disintegration”.

Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Positive disintegration. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t disintegration the opposite of growth and happiness?
It would seem not. A canon of wisdom drawn from the scriptures of all the major world religions, mystical literature, philosophy, psychology, and human experience tells us that the journey to maturity and compassion is extremely paradoxical and that mostly we grow by falling apart.

Ancient myths talk about the need sometimes to “descend into the underworld”, to live in darkness for a while. The mystics talk about “dark nights of the soul” as being necessary to bring about maturity. Ignatius of Loyola teaches that there is a place for both “consolation” and “desolation” in our lives. The Jewish scriptures assure us that certain deep things can only happen to the soul when it is helpless and exposed in “the desert” or “the wilderness” and that sometimes, like Jonah, we need to be carried to some place where we’d rather not go “in the dark belly of the whale”. And perhaps most challenging of all, we see that Jesus was only brought to full compassion through “sweating blood in Gethsemane” and then dying a humiliating death on the cross.

Why isn’t there a more pleasant route to maturity?

Psychologist James Hillman answers that question with this image: The best wines have to be aged in cracked, old barrels. And so too the human soul mellows, takes on character, and comes to compassion only when there are real cracks, painful ones, in the body and life of the one who carries it. Our successes, Hillman says, bring us glory, while our pain brings us character and compassion.

Pain, and sometimes only pain, serves to mellow the soul.

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