Finding Meaning in our Suffering: The Alternative to Escaping Suffering

(A Philosophical Musing)
All of us suffer. However, the degree and duration of suffering vary. Some people suffer only for a short time while others are trapped in the prison of suffering, literally or figuratively.
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A person’s suffering can be his own “choosing” (like you suffer the pain of studying the labor code every night or the pain of exercise and diet) or his “unchoosing” (like the illness of your father or a broken relationship.)
There is logic to a “chosen” suffering because we can recognize the benefits of it (like a degree in law, or a slim and healthy body).
But what about “unchosen” suffering which can be unbearable because many a time we cannot recognize or comprehend its benefits. And so we run, we escape. But is it healthy to always be running or escaping?
If a person, with tears in her eyes, tired from running, comes to you and asks you this two-word question: “Why me?”
This is a very difficult question that I think no person, no mathematician, physicist and any scientist can ever provide an exact answer, only a guesswork or a brilliant conjecture at best. Experts may guide him in his pursuit of answers to this question. But at the end of the day, it is you who will eventually find the answer to your own question after a penetrating and thorough self encountering.
The long and arduous process of self encountering leads many people to suffer the deadly effect of desperation in the seeming failure of their quest to find the answer to this question.
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Victor Frankl describes despair as D= S – M (Despair = suffering minus meaning) in his logotherapy theory. (Logotherapy was developed by Viktor Frankl, this theory is founded on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. His theories were heavily influenced by his personal experiences of suffering and loss in Nazi concentration camps.) Finding meaning in our suffering deters despair to control and affect our lives. This logotherapy is solidly based on the human capacity to think.
This is somehow contrary to “absurdism.” This philosophical school of thought states that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will fail in the end because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make total certainty impossible. Albert Camus in the book “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning. This is what Camus calls a “contradiction.” And in order to live well, the person should need to overcome this contradiction and this can be done by fully embracing the meaninglessness of existence.
For Frankl, however, a person should not just embrace courageously absolute meaninglessness. First because we have freedom of choice (despite this freedom being finite and limited by the person’s biological limitation) and despite the utter contradictions. And yes life is full of suffering and that it (suffering) is part of life (Tragic triad: unavoidable suffering, pain and guilt. Every person experienced these 3, no one is spared according to Frankl.)
When a man consulted with Frankl due to severe depression following the death of his wife, Frankl asked him to consider what would have happened if he had died first and his wife had been forced to mourn his death. The man was able to recognize that his own suffering spared his wife from having that experience, which served as a curative factor and helped relieve his depression. (http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/logotherapy)
It is not the task of the human person to invent a meaning, but to discover the meaning that is already present (Man’s Search for Meaning).
Going back to the person who asked “Why me?”, she can be a person who is already frustrated with her search for meaning. Frankl calls this frustration as the “existential vacuum” which is characterized as a lack of recognized meaning and purpose in life. Frankl believes this state is the result of the frustration of the will to meaning. This condition characterizes the modern world, a world in which previous traditions and values no longer provide the human person with guidance on what to do and a world in which the human person often does not even know what she may wish to do. A person in this situation may then simply do what others do (conformism) or do what others tell her to do (totalitarianism). According to Frankl, manifestations of the existential vacuum include boredom, apathy and sometimes noogenic neurosis, a clinical condition in which psychological symptoms are caused by moral and spiritual conflicts. (Lewis, “Defiant Power: An overview of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis” p. 12)
The solution to the existential vacuum, according to Frankl, is the development of a sound philosophy of life. Such a philosophy would demonstrate that life has meaning for each and every human person. (Defiant Power, p. 13)

 

In the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl lists three different ways we can find meaning in life:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
Here is an excerpt of Frankl’s book entitled MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING:
“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life anymore.’ What sort of answer can one give to that?
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
… Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive…
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, ‘Wie vie list aufzuleiden!’ (‘How much suffering there is to get through!’). Rilke spoke of ‘getting through suffering’ as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’ There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his edema, by confessing, ‘I have wept it out of my system.’” (Except taken from http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/viktor-frankl-finding-meaning-suffering)
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