Positive Thinking? Pathetic! Strong People Make Meaning Out of Suffering

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.
— Viktor Frankl

When Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote the above quote in Man’s Search for Meaning, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to imply that people who are experiencing bad circumstances should “think positive,” or “look on the bright side.”

Can you imagine suggesting to any prisoner in a concentration camp — having lost everything, starving, struggling to stay alive — that she should focus on:

- how the experience is, in fact, a growth opportunity?

- how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

- how replacing negative thoughts with positive ones will generate positive results?

No.

It’s only when lives and cruelty aren’t reallyon the line that we begin to believe that we are entitled to be happyall the time like we do here in the western world.

Happiness is a Right? That’s B.S.

Here, we believe that happiness is an inalienable right.

We believe that people who encounter painful life circumstances bring them on with negative thoughts.

We imply that we can use positive thinking to magically protect ourselves from painful events like those our lesser counterparts “attract” via their inferior negative thinking patterns.

Believing we’re entitled to feel happy distorts Frankl’s idea about choosing one’s attitude in hard times into a mockery of itself where we use attitude choice as a goal-driven push away from feelings and toward results. Every day I see people inflicting positive thinking on friends and family members (or ourselves) who are grieving or in pain.

Example: Years ago, an old friend of mine lost her father to a devastating illness. The next day, her neighbor showed up on her doorstep carrying a smiley-face balloon and clutching a boom box that was blasting “Don’t worry. Be happy.”Sheesh!

As a culture, we constantly evade the normal, natural grief that emerges from loss; the disappointment that slams into us when we’re hurt or disillusioned; the anger that arises from being treated unfairly. We push these feelings underground with a collective demand for positive thinking, a demand that paradoxically reveals our terror of the feelings, a belief that simple emotions are somehow dangerous.

The idea that all painful feelings are hurtful and corrosive and that happiness is the only healthy emotional state stems from a simplistic view of emotions.

Come on, folks! We tout our strength all over the place! We should be capable of more complex thinking than that.

Emotional States Are Not All The Same

Sadness over loss is not at all the same as self-pity.

Outrage at having been wronged is not equivalent to contemptuous anger.

Disappointment at making a mistake is not the same as a shameful giving in to failure.

Life is full of painful circumstances that simply are. There is no way to escape grief, disappointment, or other forms of suffering in a human life.

Note that Frankl also said: Not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.

And modern emotion science shows that it’s when we feel ashamed of our emotions, or abandoned in the midst of intense emotional states that we don’t know how to handle, that our healthy emotions morph into the corrosive bad kind of emotion. When we are instead supported to feel the emotions that arise in response to life events, and to express those emotions in healthy ways, the emotions themselves (even painful ones) actually generate healing, restoration, and adaptive actions.

(Note that expressing emotion does not equal mindlessly acting out any emotion that comes our way. I’m not advocating for spoiled toddler behavior!)

When we find a way to express our true emotions, we discover that:

- Results are NOT the same as meaning. So forcing positive thinking on people in order for them to get results can lead to lots of meaningless productivity.

- Happiness is NOT the same as the meaningful joy that comes from feeling the full range of emotional experience. Happiness is elusive and momentary. It was never meant to be a constant state.

A Meaningful Way to Choose an Attitude

What Frankl was talking about when he discussed choosing one’s attitude was not positive thinking. What he was talking about was choosing an inner stance toward suffering that imbues whatever we’re going through with meaning.

The attitude we can choose that gives us true freedom is an attitude of humility. We certainly should not become passive in the face of our own or others’ suffering. But we do need to admit when life is larger than we are, and to turn toward the suffering that emerges to seek what it is asking of us.

I’m NOT saying we should be grateful to our suffering for teaching us all kinds of wonderful things. That would be premature, perilous positive thinking.

I’m saying that we can listen to our suffering and find out if it’s wanting us to get help, to help others, to take a break, to fight for what’s right, to break apart and knit ourselves back together, to try to heal a relationship, to let go of a relationship.

The seeds of healing and growth are embedded in suffering itself. But we have to adopt an inner attitude of compassion that accepts that suffering is terrible, even as it is necessary; that understands that suffering is more likely to lead to growth and healing when supportive communities help sufferers.

Life is hard. There are no guarantees. We should choose an attitude of kindness toward one another. Especially during times of suffering.

The way in which a [person] accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, … gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a [person] either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … Such [people] are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere [people] are confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through [their] own suffering
— Viktor Frankl