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How To Find Purpose In Suffering

August 12, 2010

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived three years in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, is the founding father of “logotherapy”, a branch of psychotherapy that helps patients address neuroses by finding meaning and purpose in life. (Logos is the Greek word for “meaning.”) A major premise of Frankl’s writing — and of logotherapy — is that meaning can be found even in suffering. And who better to lend credence to the theory than Frankl himself, who suffered and witnessed such inhumanity? Indeed, it was his desire to communicate his findings to the world that allowed him to rise above the horrific conditions of Auschwitz. His commitment to a purpose greater than himself helped ease the suffering. And he found meaning by helping his fellow prisoners do the same.

So how does this apply to ordinary people like you and me? Is it reasonable to refer to our trials and tribulations as “suffering” when compared to the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp? Frankl would say, “Yes, absolutely.” We all suffer in one form or another. Frankl would also say that if the cause of suffering can be removed, it should be. But if not, it becomes necessary to find the “know-how to suffer.”

These truths were driven home by Breaking The Silence, a recent Sunday service at Shoal Creek Community Church. The topic of childhood sexual abuse was addressed through interviews with church members who have experienced it. Since the abuse is in the past, it could be argued that the source of suffering has been removed. But as I listened to their stories I realized that abuse victims continue to suffer long afterward. They cannot predict when or where the dark clouds of memory will appear. However, they can choose their response. And one choice is to find meaning in their suffering.

Frankl writes that “the perception of meaning…boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to become aware of what can be done about a given situation.” One thing that can be done is to share your story, and many people find this makes the burden easier to bear. Unfortunately, the social stigma and shame associated with sexual abuse make it very difficult to share such stories. In their silence, these victims become prisoners of their suffering. But just like Frankl and his fellow prisoners, they still have a choice in how they respond to the suffering.

In Breaking The Silence, my friends took enormous leaps of faith. They shared their stories with the hope that they might help others break free from their prisons, and perhaps prevent future abuse as well. In so doing, my friends found meaning in their suffering. They realized they had a choice, and they became survivors. (You can view Breaking The Silence below. The interviews start at about 17:00, but don’t miss the video at 8:00 minutes in).

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl references the story of Jerry Long, who became paralyzed from the neck down at the age of 17. Long wrote in a letter to Frankl, “I broke my neck, it didn’t break me…. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.”

I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. Without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.

I have never been imprisoned, never suffered sexual abuse, never lost the use of arms and legs. Nevertheless, stories like these give me the courage to turn the key and unlock the doors of my own self-made prisons. They spur me on to make it click, to make the best possible use of every moment. Here are 5 steps to help you find purpose in suffering, no matter what shape it takes:

  1. Read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
  2. Ask yourself: how long do I want to bear this burden all by myself? Find someone with whom you can share your story. A close friend, a pastor, a counselor, a support group. You are not alone. It may be difficult to clear the hurdle, but as Jason says in Breaking The Silence, the promise of freedom on the other side is worth the risk.
  3. Ask yourself, “What can be done about my situation?” Commit to 20 minutes of brainstorming and write down all the ideas you come up with.
  4. Figure out how your “handicap” will enhance your ability to help others. Make a commitment to be helpful.
  5. Go to the library and check out memoirs by people who have found purpose in suffering. Here are some suggestions:

Stories have the power to heal. If you keep your story to yourself, you could deny that healing power to someone who desperately needs it. It’s okay if you’re not quite ready to go public. A first step might be to share your story anonymously in the comment section below.

Be my guest…

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tracy permalink
    August 12, 2010 9:50 pm

    Thank you for the post. Checking out Man’s Search for Meaning at the library now! Ill let you know how it goes

    • August 13, 2010 8:26 am

      Thanks for reading, Tracy. Do let me know what you think of Frankl’s book. It’s not too long, and a fascinating story.

  2. August 18, 2010 9:49 am

    As per our conversation the other day, we are not taught as a culture to be with and work through suffering. This is a great set of activities to begin to break that stigma down.

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