Suffering defines us, but we get to choose its definition.
That’s what Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning (affiliate link) wanted us to know.
He told his story of suffering and survival, from a personal perspective but also as a psychiatrist. It was sad, but, more than that, it was profound.
What we suffer isn’t something we like to post on social media. Instead, we hide, ignore, and are ashamed of it. Suffering can be a subject that brings shame, embarrassment, negativity.
But, for Frankl, it’s an opportunity. Frankl writes that when we suffer, we have one of life’s greatest opportunities to find meaning by how we respond to it.
Suffering affords us a choice. You aren’t just a victim when you are put under pain. You may not be able to control the pain you are experiencing, but you can control how you will respond to it. You may believe that you can’t help but be bitter, angry, depressed, sad, etc. when the worst of times come. But that’s not true. You get to decide your response. You aren’t just a victim; you are an agent. Your suffering can’t rob you of that.
Harold Kushner, a rabbi who wrote the Forward in the book, summed up Frankl’s idea of this choice: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you,” (p32).
This Thursday morning was exciting: We were taking our firstborn to his first day in Kindergarten. The air was crisp and cool and beautiful. We walked and chatted as we wound our way through the narrow streets lined with brick townhouses, trees, and cobblestones.
Approaching a major intersection, we saw our crosswalk lady, Dulce. She wore her little hat, blue uniform with her fluorescent vest as she said hello to all of the kids by name. It was the first time we had seen her since summer vacation started.
So we stopped and asked her how her summer was. She told us heart-wrenching news.
Her son died.
He was 36 years old, and an “accident” took him in June. She found out when she was sitting in a Starbucks waiting for her next shift. Then she got the call. After she answered, her life changed unalterably.
“God is with me, ju know. If I no have him, I would you know…not be ok,” she told my wife and me. “God makes me strong, more strong, ju know.”
I do know.
When I was eight, cancer took my father. And it wasn’t the funeral that was the hardest. It was every Father’s Day that proceeded when my friends would have a great day with their dad’s, and I watched TV.
But, over the years of struggle and loneliness, something was happening inside of me. Bitterness did not hold me. That would have killed me.
Instead, by God’s grace, my life transformed. As I grew, my pain forged in me the sense that life is not only fragile; it is also precious: It can be snatched away from us in a breath. And I chose (and continue to choose) to be grateful for every day I get to be alive. I, too, with Dulce, was getting “more strong.”
Frankl chose to transcend the concentration camps. He accomplished that by envisioning himself seeing his wife again after the war was over, caressing her face, holding her hand, laughing with her. It helped him bear the once a day “meal” of watery broth, constant hunger and cold, wearing rags and shoes with holes in the winter, endless work, the dehumanization by the SS, and living under the threat of death and beatings every moment of every day. Frankl also decided to use his knowledge and skills as a physician to serve his fellow humans; he tried to help as many as he could survive with him. He also envisioned himself lecturing about his learnings from Auschwitz, passing on his insights into humanity to the next generations. His meaning was to love his wife, help his fellow humans, and to teach. Through his suffering, he learned his meaning.
“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How,” Frankl repeats this Nietzsche quote throughout his book. We will all suffer, but not all of us have a Why to live through suffering. Frankl believes that it’s critical to find meaning so that you can endure. When Frankl observed his friends who suffered with him in the camps, he noticed that those who stopped seeing meaning tended to die quickly. They just stopped trying. Meaning can mean the difference between life and death.
Suffering isn’t just a choice; it’s a chance to change and become a better person. Frankl states, “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph” (p146).
Don’t we all want to grow beyond and transcend ourselves? Don’t we want to progress, become better as people, partners, parents, friends, at work, in our communities, at home? Frankl believes that suffering is one of the most significant ways to do that.
You don’t need to have gone through the Holocaust, lost a child or parent to suffer.
It happens to us every day, in every experience of shame, inadequacy, failure. You suffer when you lose your job or feel like you aren’t good enough to keep it, or when you are in a marriage that makes you feel like crap or experience isolation.
No matter what we believe, we all have an opportunity in suffering. Frankl’s account and thoughts are rich, deep, and profound.
I hope you read his book.
I hope you suffer well.
And may you find meaning in your life, and suffering.
Most of all, I hope you triumph.