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. 

Feeling amazing one bite at a time

I love meat. I always have. 

But now I’m a vegetarian. Why?

It’s simple: I feel amazing.

For decades, I felt terrible. Chronic pain in my back, legs, and joints plagued me. 

But here’s the crazy thing, I accepted it as my fate, thinking that feeling that badly was my normal. Being tired, experiencing pain, and groaning as I got out of bed was just a part of my life. 

But I was wrong. 

I could feel better. I could be well. 

It, however, did not come through modern medicine, although I saw dozens of physicians for my pain through the years, which led to large bills or hearing that I was “fine,” but no help. 

Where medicine failed, food worked; it healed. Or to be more precise, eating the right kind did. 

I don’t know if being a vegetarian is right for everyone. But if you get anything from my story, know this. 

Food is powerful. What you eat can change your life. It did mine. 

When I went to a plant-based diet, my pain disappeared. The inflammation, the aches, the sharp stab I felt when I moved my knees or hips or back, subsided. And I have the energy like I did when I was in college. 

It’s hard to believe; I’m right there with you. 

But it’s true. 

Maybe you struggle as I did. Or perhaps you don’t have chronic pain, but you just don’t feel well. 

Have you considered trying to eat only plants or at least improving your diet to non-processed foods that resemble what a farmer would harvest from the earth or her farm? 

I think doing that will surprise you. 

Becoming a vegetarian wasn’t easy. It was really hard for me. 

Changing to a plant-only diet sucks when eating meat is one of life’s greatest joys, as it was for me. 

It was my favorite cuisine. I didn’t discriminate. Pork, beef, chicken, squid, etc. on a stick, on a plate, in a pita, with sauce or dry, dry-aged or fresh, I loved it all.  

So how did I become a full-on plant-only eater? 

Gradually. 

After I watched a documentary (I don’t remember which one) about how we should eat mostly vegetables, that idea grated against my sensibilities at first. But as I marinated on it, I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t try what the documentary recommended.

Going full vegetarian was out of the question, but I could go partial. It would be for one meal, daily. I was a vegetarian for dinner; meat became a much smaller portion of my diet. That went on for several months. And I felt better, good even. 

Then after a Father’s Day meal that consisted of a monstrously delicious pork chop, I got sick—the stick my head in the toilet kind. And I suspected that it was eating all of that pork. After that, it got me thinking about something I never considered before. It was this. 

Maybe meat isn’t right for me. 

That thought seemed so fantastical and unreal because I had loved meat all my life. It never occurred to me it could be bad for me, that meat didn’t love me back. I thought our affair was mutual. But I couldn’t ignore getting sick.  

I imagined the unimaginable: a breakup. I had to stop eating flesh. 

And a week later, I was a vegetarian. 

I must confess that I was scared. When I was in college, I tried eating only plants, but it went terribly. I felt weak and tired. And I thought I would never do that again. 

But as I considered my change, I heard about B12, a vitamin that’s naturally in meats. And often if you go to a plant-based diet, you can become fatigued since you lack it. So it’s important to take a B12 supplement when becoming a vegetarian. I did. This supplement is the one I take (affiliate link). 

The results of eating only plants were immediate. I started feeling better within days and great within a week or two. 

Now, I don’t eat any meat. Well, sometimes I cheat by eating a pepperoni pizza, but very rarely. 

I just feel too good to go back. 

When I started, it used to be hard seeing people eat meat while I sat and chewed on my brussels sprouts. It felt a little unfair, and I’d feel a bit sulky. 

But now it’s just life. I’ve found foods that I can indulge in: bagels, noodles, rice, pizzas. They haven’t replaced meat. But they make eating more enjoyable. 

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the veggies I eat. But it’s nice to change things up from time to time. 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to two barbecues and didn’t stray. If you had told me a year ago that I would be at two barbecues but not partake from the grill, I would have laughed at you. 

But there I was chewing on a leaf while my friends enjoyed juicy bites animal. 

But don’t feel bad for me. 

I feel great, better than I have in decades. 

Feeling like this is addicting. And if staying away from beef and chewing on leaves does it, sign me up. 

That feeling is what keeps me going and has made staying away from meat easier, better even. 

And now I’m not even tempted. 

Food plays a powerful role in our lives—sometimes more than we can imagine. 

If eating only plants doesn’t make you feel well, try something different—experiment. Find what works for you. And you can feel better than you do now. It doesn’t need to be normal to feel like crap. You can be well.

What you eat can be the difference between feeling terrible or amazing. 

What will you choose?

One thing that helps you reach your potential

Sometimes who we are and who we want to be feel too far apart to do anything about. But that’s not true in many cases. 

You can reach your potential. 

It starts with these words. 

“I can.”

That simple phrase is the key to going further than we ever thought we could. 

And yet many of us find it difficult to say. 

I know I do. 

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How I fight my cravings everyday

Saying that I love bagels, pizza, donuts, and ice cream just doesn’t do it justice. I think about them all of the time, every day. I’m obsessed. I’m thinking about them right now. And I crave them, want them, yearn for them. And they seem to love me too. I can hear them calling to me as I type. Right now, a toasted sesame bagel smothered with scallion cream cheese is shouting my name over and over and over, “John Pa! Get over here, now. You need me!” And the others are always in the background, clambered for my attention, too. And I want to yield. Oh, I do.   

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I had no idea midlife could feel like this

Another birthday came and went, and I’m solidly over the hill. But I don’t feel that way. 

In my thirties, I used to fear being forty. I dreaded it like one dreads a root canal. And it hovered over me like a black cloud. Probably the unknown was the cause for so much fear in me. I mean, What does someone do after they’re forty? I had no clue. It’s hard to see over a hill when you’re still climbing it. But now I know how stupid that was, pure ignorance. 

Continue reading “I had no idea midlife could feel like this”