Finding meaning through suffering


©Scott Robinson; Flickr
©Scott Robinson; Flickr

As we go through our journey in life, most of us have periods of suffering. This suffering comes to us in many shapes and forms, from an event that may be out of our control, to the acute pain of tragedy and loss. In my private practice, Suffering has walked through the door nearly every time. Like an old friend, I try to greet it with compassion no matter what form it shows up in. Sometimes, I fail. I had a client who came to a session very upset because her “friends” on Facebook were “unfollowing” her. On the surface this seemed like a first world problem, and I felt irritated by her upset. As we started to peel back the layers, her deepest pain was a fear of abandonment, and I was humbled once again. Suffering always has a lesson to teach me!

Viktor Frankl, österr. Psychologe und Arzt. Photographie. Um 1975My view on suffering changed when I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) as a student psychotherapist. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to various concentration camps from 1942-1945. During this time, when the prisoners had been stripped of everything in their lives, Frankl noticed that certain inmates were able to bear their situation better than others.  They chose how they wanted to be,and act, despite their losses. For example, some were able to find meaning through caring for other prisoners. Others would give away their portions of food to those who were struggling in this bleak environment. These people did not let their circumstances dictate their own personal attitudes and actions. After the war was over, Frankl went on to write about his experiences in the death camps and developed a theory on finding meaning in life. He observed:

…we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. (pg. 133)

This last point gave me insight into my own suffering. Rather than wanting to escape from any pain I was facing, or faced in the past, I chose to find meaning. Rather than wanting a quick-fix, I chose to go through the pain and see what I could learn from these experiences. It was really difficult, but I found a deeper compassion for myself, and for others, which I try to reflect in my psychotherapy practice. I have seen suffering on many different levels, with unique meaning for each client. The client, which I mentioned before, started to understand what true friendship meant for her. She realized that she had been neglecting her 2 closest friends, whom she had known since childhood, in favour of “friends” on social media sites. She was able to see that she had become the abandoner, and this led her to reconnect with the people who truly loved and cared for her. She found meaning, and her suffering led her to a place of gratitude for the people in her life.

©Carolyn; FlickrI am sure that Suffering will come knocking on my door at some point in the future. I will try to meet it with the same fortitude that Viktor Frankl describes in his book. It will be painful, but not meaningless.

4 thoughts on “Finding meaning through suffering

  1. When I read your article Debbie, I thought of all the ways and energy that people put into avoiding suffering. As you indicated in your post, it is a choice as to whether we go through the pain or hedge around it. I wonder what our society would look like if we all made the choice to face suffering. I bet LCBO sales would plummet as would the retail industry! So how much does our society encourage the avoidance of suffering I wonder?

  2. Hi Kerrie, thanks for your comment. I once worked with a psychiatrist who said he couldn’t bear to see people suffer so he would prescribe pills to help them through it. Working through our suffering does not seem to be in our collective psyche. But, Viktor Frankl observed, through his experiences in concentration camps, that suffering can bring out the best in us. Rather than avoid it, we can integrate it into our own psyche and grow from it. When the pills stop working, I hope people will choose to face their pain and find meaning in it.

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