Finding Meaning in Suffering
Oftentimes, our suffering feels meaningless. We question the hard times and wonder where God is in it. But suffering has meaning and God is in the midst. Oftentimes, however, it takes pain to gain the perspective needed to find meaning.
This was true of Victor Emil Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. He was the founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, authoring the international best-seller “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946). It was during his time as a concentration camp inmate that Frankl struggled and sought with the meaning of life. Frankl had to find a reason to continue living in extreme suffering and brokenness, becoming one of the key figures in existential psychology.
In 1945, Frankl’s camp was liberated, however, upon returning home to Vienne, he learned of the deaths of his parents and wife in the concentration camps. Because of his experience with great suffering and the loss of his loved ones, Frankl came to the conclusion that even in the most painful and dehumanization situation, life has potential meaning. Therefore, even suffering is meaningful.
Nearly broken and very alone in the world, Frankl’s beliefs about the meaning of life became the foundation of logotherapy. Frankl believed that life has meaning under all circumstances — even the worst pain. His experience in the concentration camp led him to believe that we have freedom to find meaning in what we experience and what we do — especially when faced with unchangeable suffering.
A Deeper Meaning
Although Frankl never did outright speak about God, many of his finding referenced to a deeper spiritual meaning. Frankl concluded that that “human existence…is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself”. This idea is also biblical — that the meaning of life is not dependent on others, our projects, or even our dignity.
Oftentimes we attempt to fill ourselves, trying to silence the emptiness within. We fill our lives with pleasure, food, sex, power, money, or busyness; all in an attempt to provide ultimate satisfaction. Instead, however, we fall deeper into despair as we spend our days attempting to find meaning.
Frankl called this the existential vacuum. He liked this emptiness in our lives to a vacuum, which of course, things rush to fill. He pointed to the fact that when people finally have time to do what they want, they rather not do anything. For example, students get drunk every weekend, people get bored when they retire, and we spend our evenings in passive entertainment.
Victor Frankl stated “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. This best exemplifies the philosophy of existential therapy. We must make decisions to change our lives by changing our behavior, even when it’s painful. We are held responsible for our behavior and its outcome. Therefore, we can reinvent ourselves by our behavior. We are the builders of our lives and can create our futures. We find meaning, even in our suffering, and our lives are a product of our choices.
Crumbaugh, J. C., and Carr, G. L. (1979). Treatment of Alcoholics with Logotherapy. The International Journal of the Addictions, 14 (6), 847–853.