From Suffering to Holistic Flourishing: Emancipatory Maternal Care Practices—A Substantive Notion of the Good

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In this 21st century of increasingly complex and interrelated human challenges, the problem of human suffering across diverse societies and cultures remains poorly framed, understudied, and not well understood as an issue of significance for the public and the public’s health. This article addresses suffering from the perspective of the “person-in-environment” or person as situated in relational, social, and ecological contexts, a foundational concept in psychology, social work, and human ecology. We challenge key ideological beliefs and incentives in a market-based economy that drive health policy making in the United States and elsewhere. Drawing on methods of phenomenological psychology and sociology, we present a reframing of suffering as a disruption in the social and economic conditions necessary for the attainment of health and well-being, and call for radical transformation of care systems and practices across all settings. Particularly in an era of global capitalism and development, the social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of these experiences and implications for human agency and social solidarity need to be considered in light of an evidence-based epistemology that draws on theoretical frameworks in psychology, public health, sociology, ecology, social work, and philosophy, including moral phenomenology, biomedical ethics, environmental ethics, and social justice. We also consider the dialectics of suffering as related to a substantive notion of the good, namely, maternal dimensions of existence and their affordances (hereinafter “the Maternal”) in lived social care practices, and compare this notion of the good to concepts of the common good and care of the common home articulated in Laudato Si (Francis I, 2015). While focusing on the centrality of social bonds, intercorporeality, and embodied, loving care in the mother–child intertwining, the Maternal generalizes to a whole set of relationship perspectives that influence our discussion. The Maternal may be broadly analogized to the Aristotelian concept of flourishing, as experienced by individual human beings, social communities, and all living creatures that share our planet. This inclusive view offers an integrated, intergenerative, and holistic perspective on suffering that challenges narrower biomedical and scientific orientations. Finally, we describe the central role of psychology and the helping professions in relation to designing emancipatory, maternal care practices and environments that promote human flourishing for all persons.

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