Can There Be Meaning in Suffering?
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” -Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)
Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor, and the founder of Logotherapy, what is considered to be the first of the existential psychotherapies. The above-mentioned quote is a brilliant summary of his therapeutic method. In it, Frankl recalls the profound lesson that he learned while enslaved in what could reasonably be considered the equivalent of hell; he learned that, fundamentally, all of us are free, thus, capable of creating meaning. For Viktor, life’s purpose included rising above one’s suffering and acting morally despite living in hell; he noted that each of us had to discover what that meant to us in our own unique circumstances.
Frankl’s book changed my life, and those who know me know how easily I tend to fall into cynical thinking, so it wasn’t a simple shift. Many times, a therapist is asked to use the same techniques, and the same thinking, that he teaches in his own life, in order to help ease his own sorrow. That moment had finally arrived for me. Over the past week, I learned that my friend took her own life, my grandmother may be dying, and that another close friend is on the verge of entering a drug rehabilitation program. My initial response was my usual response to tragedy: numbness. And, my thinking could have been predicted by anyone who knew me. My despair was deep and my inability to feel anything became all-encompassing. I was angry at the world, and, selfishly, about the perceived unfairness of my life.
And then, I thought about Viktor and his Logotherapy, his quest to help others find meaning in their lives, which was, in essence, his own discovered meaning. I thought about his experiences at those death camps, and what he learned from them; I recalled his memories of watching others succumb to their grief, transforming themselves into the monsters that they detested; and, I remembered all of the people in my life who did the same. But, for Viktor, being inhumane, becoming a monster oneself, was not an acceptable choice; and it wasn’t for me, either. So, I made the conscious choice to rise above my sadness and create meaning in my own sorrow.
Evading Death to Find Life
Life exists in such a way that one can’t go through it for too long without suffering, which isn’t to say that living is suffering, but only that it’s inevitable. Frankl taught that, despite its accompanying pain, suffering presented an opportunity, to help us become better than we are. While refusing to blame those who couldn’t rise above, he exalted those who could, and I longed to become a member; thus, for the second time in my life, I chose life over death, but this time, it was a spiritual death that I evaded.
So, what does it mean to rise above, and what exactly did I choose? I chose to be there for my friend who’s struggling with drug addiction; I chose to be there for her mom; I chose to be there for my family, even the ones who’ve allowed life to make them bitter and hostile; and I chose to be there for my friend, who was close with the one who passed away; that is what it means for me to rise above.
Viktor asserted that it was our duty to fulfill the tasks which life sets up for us by discovering the right answers to its problems. To me, it’s a bit more subjective; the answers that I’ve created are the ones which are right to me. And they’re the ones that will keep me going, because Logotherapy taught me that it was my duty, and my honor, to make myself worthy of my suffering. Like the blacksmith who chisels away at a lump of scolding iron, I’m slowly breaking apart an old self which sought hedonistic pleasure, refusing to confront pain, like Narcissus.
Viktor taught me that suffering was inevitable, but that character was special. A Christian philosopher once noted that the only things that we could take with us upon death are our deeds. Therefore, in the end, the only thing that really matters is how we live and what we do, and how we respond to a world that often doesn’t care. But, as cliche as it is, I have no right to demand goodness of anyone until I manifest it myself first. And that goodness, according to Frankl, will remain sealed in the great history of our expanding universe, with nothing, and no one, being able to ever remove it — our deeds, unlike our corporeal selves, will last forever.
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