Finding meaning in suffering

50,000 people died in Haiti this week.  A catastrophe of this magnitude is difficult to comprehend.    How can we find meaning and even hope in the wake of so much suffering? Sometimes the only choices appear to be to sink into a hole of sadness, or to cut ourselves off from the suffering of others, to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

There will be times when each of us succumbs to one of these.  Both of them are symptoms of the same malady: a sense of purposelessness.  If there is so much suffering, how can there be meaning to life?  There is a third choice as well.  The choice to be present with the darkness without being swallowed by it.  To take action, however insignificant it may sometimes feel, to relieve the suffering of others.

Viktor Frankl survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.  During his time there, he discovered that meaning could be found even in the darkest of places.  In his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how the people most likely to survive the camps were the ones who found an inner freedom and an inner meaning by helping others.

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 a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Frankl claims that the essential struggle of humanity is seeking a sense of purpose in life.  If we feel that our lives have meaning, we can overcome anything.  If we do not live for something greater than ourselves, even our comparatively cushy lives will feel like a prison.

How do we discover meaning in our lives?  Frankl offers three ways:

  1. by doing a deed
  2. by experiencing a value
  3. by suffering

Rather than being something that robs our life of meaning, according to Frankl (someone who clearly speaks from experience) suffering can actually be a gateway to greater happiness and a sense of fulfillment.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Is this to say that suffering is indispensable to the discovery of meaning? In no way. I only insist meaning is available in spite of–nay, even through suffering, provided . . . that the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.

A student of mine has been struggling with shingles for the past several months. She has been in a lot of pain. Many times she came to class anyway, just to be around others and feel the energy of a yoga class even if she couldn’t participate in everything. Rather than getting better, the shingles kept getting worse. They went into her left eye. Then one of her parents fell ill and she had to travel to take care of them, while she was still healing from her own health problems.

“Shingles have been such a blessing” she said to me after class this week. “I have been in such wonderful health all my life, that I have never been motivated to get to know my body.” Now, practicing yoga while dealing with illness, she has found a new connection to herself. On top of this, because the shingles was in her eye, her doctors discovered cataracts and are able to treat them early.

What a beautiful thing to recognize the huge gifts we receive from our struggles and limitations. While we often (understandably) want life to be easy and enjoyable at all times, it is the times of struggle that are the biggest opportunities for growth.  Life is not always sweetness and light. There are times of contraction and times of expansion. Together, these create the pulse of life.

Frankl experienced more suffering than most of us can imagine, and in the midst of this suffering he held on to his integrity by finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless life and circumstances.  The meaning that Frankl found, was love.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.

When we are confronted with disaster on a scale too large to ignore, may we use this opportunity to wake up.  To seek out the meaning in our lives.  And to discover a greater capacity for love and compassion within ourselves.   The greater purpose you discover for your life must be motivated by love in order for it to truly fill you. No matter how you frame it, in order for your life to be meaningful, you have to dedicate it to love.

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