Finding Meaning in your Suffering

No, this post isn’t about how I travelled across the world and meditated with the Dalai Lama after I found my soul in the Himalayas. I believe that if I haven’t found my soul in my backyard then I probably won’t find it elsewhere.

I want to talk about a book I recently read called Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It is a memoir on his days in several Nazi concentration camps and a peek into his brain child, logotherapy. Frankl’s honesty and the motivation I got from reading the book compelled me to write a rather candid first Medium post. I’m going to talk about how this book helped me change my attitude towards suffering.

Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin’s Purpose in Life

Logotherapy TL;DR

As a Jew, Victor Frankl was incarcerated in four different concentration camps during the holocaust where he experienced the harshest of living conditions. It’s impossible to convey the extent of suffering he endured in the camps in just few sentences but imagine not being able to clean yourself, not having nutritious meals and then having to work in extreme cold without proper warm clothes, to receive blows from officers for seemingly petty reasons, to come back to the camp tired and not even have a bed to sleep on! Imagine repeating this every day for years! Human life eventually lost its worth when you see heaps of dead people every day who couldn’t survive the torture. Morals are blurred since everything becomes about your survival, at most your friends’ too.

Despite living like this, he used this suffering as a motivation to find meaning in it. He used that meaning to be optimistic about his future instead of giving in to suicidal thoughts like many of the other prisoners.

This philosophy is logotherapy in a nutshell. Frankl understood that it wasn’t suffering itself that causes despair. It is when we have nothing to do and no one to love that we find that we have no meaning to live. This lack of meaning (even in suffering) is what makes people lose the will to live.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in three different ways:

  1. Creating work or doing a deed
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. Changing one’s attitude towards unavoidable 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 a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.

Why is suffering unavoidable?

Everybody is in pursuit of happiness. The lack of it makes us feel miserable because we are always told that suffering is bad, we must try to be happy all the time. There is so much unavoidable suffering in this world, though, and most of it created by us by merely trying to elude it.

Our definition of happiness is wrong. It’s a monochromatic word used to describe a painful spectrum of human emotions. Our sense of happiness is so brittle, it can be destroyed simply by asking whether or not it exists. — Oatmeal

This is a quote from one of my favorite comics by Oatmeal titled “How to be Perfectly Unhappy” which beautifully describes why being sad is okay.

During his days of extreme suffering at the concentration camps, Frankl, had understood Nietzche’s words, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.

Calvin and Hobbes: It’s never so bad that it can’t get worse

How is there meaning in suffering?

Frankl’s found meaning in his suffering by considering it as an opportunity for him to understand the psychology of a camp prisoner. He found the motivation to live by hoping that someday he would get to publish his work with all the observations he made at camp.

An example that is often given to explain this basic tenet of logotherapy is the story of Frankl meeting with an elderly general practitioner who was struggling to overcome depression after his wife’s demise. Frankl helped the elderly man to see that his suffering’s purpose had been to spare his wife the pain of losing him first.

I am struggling with depression myself and I would always ask why I had to suffer this much which made me feel worse. I have good friends, great parents, my basic necessities are taken care of. Sure, I have gone through some really tough situations in life but I also have so much to be grateful about. Why am I suffering so much?

It gave me a lot of relief knowing that suffering is essential and there must be a meaning to my suffering. For one, it has made me more empathetic towards myself and others. It has helped me learn so much more about myself and the world.

So, what brings me meaning?

I put a huge part of my life’s meaning into my work and I have been feeling purposeless for a few months since I lost my job last year. This has either exacerbated my mental health issues or my mental health has made dealing with this more difficult. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Either way, the end result was a lack of self-worth because I lost the most important meaning to my life.

The environment around us gives so much importance to extrinsic achievements like what we do, where we work, how much we earn, what we possess that I didn’t even think about who I am without all this. My worth, in my own eyes, is a sum total of all these external factors and sadly we have been conditioned to think this way since we step into school.

I can see how clouded I was because years ago when I came across a quote by Ralph Waldo Emmerson:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

My eyes stopped reading after ‘useful.’

Yes, that is the purpose! I have to be useful, I want to be useful. The only way for me to be useful is by working. Let me immerse myself in whatever work I do!

This worked well until I started experiencing life without a job.

Oh no, I am not useful now. Maybe, I can still create some work by myself, make art, start writing, learn new languages, pick up an instrument.

And I did!

But these aren’t useful. It’s not useful until it can make a difference to someone other than me. I am not even the best at all of these.

I now know how toxic it is to think like this. It took me many months of consuming a lot of self-help content and help from my therapist, to look at myself and life differently. I put myself through a excruciating existential crisis just by asking “What is your intrinsic worth then?” Finding an answer to that was worth the pain.

I now see and understand the more important part of Emmerson’s quote:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

My principles, my integrity, my compassion, these are all mine. These are decisions I made and rules I set that I abide by. I am valuable simply because of the values I have actualized in the past. I am a good friend, a good daughter, a good citizen and that makes a difference to a lot of people. Accepting this is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do and I’m still working on it.

Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can be given a meaning, and so too can suffering. Life in the concentration camp taught Frankl that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure, as Freud had believed, nor power, as Adler had believed, but meaning.

What brings meaning into your life?

I would love to read what brings meaning into your life and what you consider to be your intrinsic value, if you’d like to share, in the comments. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from you. :)

I’m a UX Researcher who dabbles in design. I run on coffee and bubble tea. They help me write about product research, design, psychology and philosophy.