Is your life experience making you feel despair or gloom? Are you feeling miserable all the time? Are you suffering; mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically or just feeling bad about living? Do you occasionally think of ending your life to escape your despair? What are you willing to give in order to escape this suffering?
Like living, dying and death, suffering is an integral part of life. If life were to have meaning, then there must and should also be meaning to suffering.
The Good News is that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. According to Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), “our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful”.
“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.”
Viktor should know. During Hitler’s Holocaust, he survived four concentration camps (Kaufering, Dachau, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz) without knowing that his mother, brother and wife had already been killed. His wife’s pregnancy with their child was also forcibly aborted by the German captors. His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (2nd ed, Beacon Press, 1947) contains a rich pool of life-changing content, with deep wisdom and grounded in great psychology. For all his sufferings and loss, as well as the unimaginable brutality seen, the book systematically explained how he survived the pain, abuse and despair by responding with hope in the impossible, holding fast the beauty of his love for his wife and faith in a future so dark, distant and un-visionable. [All quotations are from the book]
His basic notion is that human beings, with a fully evolved consciousness, have the ability to transcend not only the intrinsic, instinctual responses believed to be driving forces for the human psyche but also the adverse environmental influence present in everyday life. Basically, our fate is not controlled or determined by our environment.
The fundamental point of the book was about Survival, on how to survive the most challenging life situation and circumstances.
The key to escaping despair is to find meaning amid unbearable circumstances. The motivation comes from the restoration of hope and faith, no matter how hard the journey was. Viktor attributed his survival to “finding personal meaning in his circumstance which in turn gave him a will to live”.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
”We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
For those in great despair, grief, pain and suffering, the sheer determination and human resolve to survive is a monumental commitment to a life of indignity that has been systematically stripped of all significant personal meaning. For Viktor, his absolute unshakeable belief is “simply because he knows that when all else fails, one’s meaning, and purpose must reside within oneself.”
The strongest motivational force to remain living is a purpose as the reason to overcome adversity. Viktor quoted and attributed to Fredriech Niestche the saying, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”.
“The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others.”
Viktor observed 2 kinds of people in the concentration camps.
The first kind of individuals were those who concluded that waking up every day just to submit to hard labor and scrape by when death was so certain meant that life was useless and they might as well give up.
“A man who could not see the end of his ‘provisional existence’ was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life … For him, I have nothing to expect from life anymore”.
A second kind of individuals insisted on striving despite all the obscene and heartless challenges, the utter, absolute hopelessness of it all.
“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 the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“These brave men and women give each of us little excuse to ignore the needs of our communities, and they are a standing example of how even when we have nothing, we can be generous.”
The distinguishing factor was one’s ability to find meaning, and his powerful relevant lesson is that our ability to find and pursue meaning will strengthen us in any trial, big or small.
The Golden Key to escape despair is one of Hope:
“even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can be given a meaning, and so too can suffering.
For Viktor, meaning can be found through:
· Experiencing reality through authentic interaction with the environment and with others,
· Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and
· Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
Depression is the result when the gap between what a person is and what he ought to be, or once wished to be, becomes so large that it can no longer be ignored or cover-up. The person’s goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future.
“Depression is our mind telling ourselves that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing. Unless change can be made, there will continue to be a mismatch between our lived experience and our desired experience, between the meaninglessness of everyday life and the innate drive to find meaning, to self-actualize, to be all that we can be. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges us to become aware of our mortality and freedom, and challenges us to exercise the latter within the framework of the former.”
“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.”
The Solution to Depression and Despair
“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 fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
It’s not all about you. What can you do for life? What can you do for others?
“What we have in our own life if we have nothing of the world? Who are we if we do not have our degrees, our family, our home, our name? If some or all of this is taken from us, what defines us? What keeps us going? And why?”.
Yes, we have no choice of action in the face of desperate, depressing, despairing, painful and insufferable circumstances. We are not bound to our environments. Yes, the environment can be a harsh determiner of our actions but it is not fate. Our choice comes from finding and cultivating meaning and purpose in our lives, which provide each of us with the strength to survive — regardless of the severity of our trials and hardships. You may not have a choice in your circumstances and environment. But you always have a choice in how you react to those imposed upon you.