Suffering is one of the best ways to find meaning

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. 

What it’s really like starting a business

For years I’ve said that starting a business is like jumping off of a cliff and learning to fly.

Somehow I flew.

Rent wasn’t cheap. It was 2008, and I was living in New York City. I was in my early thirties, single and stupid enough to leap off of a cliff without a parachute. All I had was a dream to be my own boss and some savings. So I wasn’t that stupid.

Jobless and hopeful, I went looking for my destiny. Friends kept on asking me when I was going to look for a job. And when I told them I was starting my own business, they laughed.

Things looked laughable. My appearance went from beautiful suits to shorts, clean shaven to scruffy. Before I was jobless, my practice was to be the first one out of my apartment; afterward, I was barely out of my bedroom after my roommates left. I was feral.

I was free-time rich but paycheck poor. Every day was free and open. Time was entirely my own to do with as I pleased. There was no routine, structure, external motivator.

The only thing I can compare it to is college: When you got dropped off your freshman year, and you realize that your parents are no longer with you to tell you what to do. You could skip classes, drink beer in the morning, if you were into that, and do whatever whenever you wanted. My life was like that, except I was in my thirties, not eighteen. And I had an NYC sized rent to pay.

The freedom wasn’t free. The price was stress. It was heavier than anything I had ever felt before. It was the fear of failure.

Some days it was too much. So in the morning, I would walk out of my apartment building, in shorts and scruffy, to watch a matinee movie. It was five dollars of relief from the vice grip of stress my head was in.

And what added to that was the waiting. When entrepreneurs tell their stories, they sound so action-packed. But what they don’t mention are the long periods of silence and solitude that fill the gaps between the action.

It can drive a person mad. Those parts are dull and miserable. They involve deep bouts of fear, worry, being curled up in a fetal position on the floor, murmuring unintelligible prayers to God. But they are a part of the process.

I had to learn to be still and pray (not in a fetal position) and get zen. I also watched Iron Man five times in the theater. But that’s beside the point. I had to learn how to wait well.

Curbing my spending habits was a part of survival. When I worked for someone else, I ate every meal out every day. When I started my own thing, I cooked.

Well, calling it that is generous. Bachelor food was all I could conjure up. So I didn’t cook. I microwaved.

Two hotdogs on a tortilla, with a piece of American cheese, slapped on top of the dogs, nuked for about a minute was my go-to meal. Then I took that hot gooey mess and wrapped it up into what looked like a weird burrito and devoured it like a wild animal. It was cheap, fast, and delicious. It was bachelor bliss.

Figuring out what kind of company I should start was harder than I thought it would be. I daydreamed, took walks, begged God, read books, and pounded my head against the wall. Then, instead of me finding it, it found me.

When I wasn’t watching movies in the middle of the morning or enjoying my James Beard Award worthy meal, or daydreaming about my future, I was meeting with people.

One of them was a client of mine from the bank where I used to work. We got along well. He was retired. I was feral. We both loved ideas and business and had the same faith. His favorite sushi shop and pub were our usual haunts. And we’d chew food and words; they were sweet memories.

One day, he asked me to help him with his hotel, which became my first paying gig. He hired me to build him a new website. I was relieved. I actually had income. It was a gift.

That relief quickly turned into a new terror. Now that I had a paying project, it dawned on me that I would have to deliver on what I promised I could do.

The only problem was that I was utterly under-qualified. I wasn’t a developer nor a designer. Sure, I had led a small volunteer arts group for my church, and oversaw the design of that website. But this was different. Real money was involved. And this website was for my friend’s business. I didn’t want to fail him. I didn’t want to fail myself. But I pushed forward, taking one step at a time.

But let me tell you something that income felt incredible. It was very different from getting a paycheck from my jobs. This was someone paying me–directly. And the payment resulted from my meeting and talking about what value I could provide. It had originated from my work. Yes, it was mostly luck, but there was still a smidge of something that I did. I showed up. And money started to flow. It felt like magic. It was magic.

The project finished with my client sending me to Northern Ireland to stay at his boutique hotel to take pictures of it and the surrounding landscape. It was a dream. And the best part was that my friend appreciated the work and even recommended me to others. He was the gift that kept on giving.

When I reflect on that time, I see how little I did. Yes, I jumped off of that analogous cliff, but somehow I was guided by something or someone. The timing was just right, the experiences I had prepared me just enough to try, and I had a network that worked in my favor.

I didn’t learn to fly.

I was lifted up.

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The secret to dealing with people in business

At the core of every business isn’t money. It’s relationships.

Now, I don’t mean that you need to go on a business retreat and hold hands with your coworkers as you dance around a campfire singing Kumbaya. But we can be practicing ways of relating to others that build mutual respect, trust, and maybe even some love.

Continue reading “The secret to dealing with people in business”