Suffering: A Seed for Cultivating Greater Life Meaning
(4 min read)
I’m ashamed to say that it’s taken me over 10 years in the psychology field to finally read the timeless memoir by Viktor E. Frankl called “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Frankl, 1984). For those of you who aren’t familiar with this book, it is an account of an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who also happened to be a psychiatrist. In suffering through his imprisonment, Frankl turned his experiences into an observational study of the human response in the face of losing everything seemingly meaningful in life. Although the account, and Frankl’s subsequent “logotherapy” have been around for many years, the lessons from his writings never cease to provide great insights into the human condition in the face of great struggle.
Of course, we’ve all been there. Not in a Nazi concentration camp, probably, but there are certainly times when life gets the better of us. Murphy’s Law humbly reminds us that whatever can go wrong will, and just when we think things can’t get any worse, they do. Essentially, there are times when we feel like we’re living in a mental concentration camp of sorts, without any way out.
Divorce… illness… death… job loss… rejection… debt… accidents… break-ups… or simply getting stuck at every red light on the way home from work.
Regardless of the challenge, Frankl teaches us that no matter how great our suffering, triumph is never out of reach. What follows is an overview of what I believe are two of his most important lessons.
Lesson # 1| You can and will restore good life circumstances, and often GAIN in the process.
In the WWII concentration camps, the prisoners, including Frankl himself, were stripped of their loved ones, their homes, their friends, their professions, their health, their clothes, even every last hair on their bodies. Their dignity and every ounce of pride was robbed from them so all that was left was a thin sheet of skin covering their cold, frail, and overworked bones.
In the prisoner’s mind it seemed like there was less than nothing left, and many succumbed to suicide if their pathetic “living” conditions, consumed by rampant illness, didn’t take them away first. But in the years that many of these individuals suffered, including Victor Frankl himself, were all of the things they lost gone for good?
No, in fact.
As Frankl so hopefully explains, after the end of the war he returned to his old life (as well as a life can be returned to after falling victim to such trauma). Frankl once again obtained a home, friends, loved ones. His health returned, he was able to practice as a psychiatrist once again, and could experience warmth and good food and comforts. Inasmuch as the war had robbed him of so much over the course of the years, Frankl was, essentially, able to regain many of the things that the prisoners thought were long gone. Above all, the experiences he went through would prove to be an asset to him through lessons learned, both personally and professionally. And, Frankl’s experiences would also prove to be an asset to countless others, including anyone, like yourself, who continues reading about his theories to this day.
When it comes to our own troubles, our own downfalls, lows, and seemingly hopeless life circumstances, Frankl teaches us to ask ourselves, above all else, the following questions: Is all absolutely lost? Is there absolutely no way to recover anything that you once had? Is there no way of rebuilding? Of gaining new, and possibly even greater circumstances? Is there a possibility that your suffering might be an asset to you in the future? If so, how?
In many cases, the circumstances one finds oneself in, no matter how desperate, do NOT mean that is all lost. In fact, quite the opposite. One’s previous life circumstances are usually eventually restored, and better yet, many times they are restored to a degree much greater than one ever thought possible – that of having gained rich experiences, insights, lessons, skills, strengths, new opportunities, new friends and/or loved ones…
Lesson #2| Suffering ceases to even be suffering when there lies a task to be achieved within it.
Frankl attests that among the ways of finding meaning in life, the attitude one takes towards one’s suffering is perhaps one of the most difficult, yet most important, vehicles we can take to get there. According to Frankl, life can strip a human being of essentially everything, but life can never strip his or her choice of attitude towards their circumstances. We are continually faced with making choices about how we will respond to any given situation, allowing us to have complete mental and spiritual freedom. According to Frankl, the challenge is to match one’s level of suffering with an equal level of courage to find inner achievement in our circumstances. In other words, the way one “wears” their suffering can either be a success, or not. In this way, even the greatest suffering can hold deep meaning.
In my own therapy practice, I often speak to clients about the role that control plays in one’s level of perceived stress. In this regard, I believe that Frankl’s perspective offers clients a sense of control where there otherwise might not be any left. Frankl might not have been in control of his life circumstances when he was imprisoned in the camps, but he never lost control of how he would choose to respond in the face of things. As soon as some sense of control comes back into play, one is granted a new sense of meaning, manageability, and predictability. Ultimately, choosing to turn suffering into a task allows for feelings of stress to diminish (even if just a little bit), and a sense of wellbeing to be restored.
These are only two among many lessons that Viktor Frankl teaches in his writings. With that being said, I believe it’s highly worth the relatively short read if you get the chance. If anything, it instills a sense of renewed hope in our darkest moments and reminds us that, ultimately, our circumstances are only as bad as we perceive them to be.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.