meaning in the midst of suffering

Viktor Frankl, in his famous book Man’s Search For Meaning, shares about a time he was participating in a group therapy session, complied of a variety of people who were experiencing a variety of sufferings. As we know, Frankl’s primary interest in logotherapy, which he developed, was that it is meaning that gives one a reason to live. The human is not given a passion for life by simply self-actualizing, but by self-transcending. We need to reach into our deepest resource, which is our untapped potential, to live a life of joy, passion and meaning.

During this session, the meaningless of suffering arose. Frankl’s own life provides an example of how his life had meaning. When he was arrested and taken to a prison camp, he had a one out of twenty-eight chance of survival. That was the statistics. He had hidden in his coat the manuscript for his book he was writing. When this was confiscated, he lost all hope. Eventually, he realized that he simply must write this book, so he scribbled notes on anything he could find. It was his sense of mission to write this book that he believes kept him alive.

In this way, he didn’t find meaning in the suffering. but he found meaning in the midst of his suffering. The suffering itself didn’t have meaning that he could perceive. But he found a meaning for living while he endured unbearable suffering in such places as Auschwitz. He noted that it was those who had a reason to live that had a far better chance of survival. It wasn’t that they had a reason to suffer that they could understand, but that they had a reason to endure the suffering. You understand the difference.

So he gave a question in a story as an example to the therapy group. I quote:

The question was whether an ape that was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; for with its limited intelligence it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: ‘And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension possible, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?’

Please keep in mind that although Frankl believed in human spirituality, he was not religious. He believed in a transcendence that is within us all, and personal.

(Another spin on the story he used could be that this was written in a day when animal testing was common and acceptable practice. Now that we see it as unjust, what would this say about the suffering of that ape?)


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18 Responses

  1. And if the ape could talk, what would the ape say about his/her suffering?

  2. Syl says:

    Thank you, David, for this reminder.

  3. Heidi Durham says:

    Good story, thank you.

  4. nakedpastor says:

    thanks heidi and syl.

  5. One of the evidences of awareness, to me, is the ability to empathize. I may be anthropomorphizing animal behavior, but it seems to me that animals have the ability to recognize suffering in others and respond to it in appropriate ways. I see this in dogs and certainly with many primates.

    If we as humans respond to the suffering of animals by providing better living conditions for the animals of this planet, what seems to be preventing an all powerful, all knowing, god from doing the same?

    I respect Viktor Frankl’s work on this because in the absence of god, learning how to make it through suffering is all we have. To me, the greater tragedy is the idea that we need to ask for god’s help and this god, who really isn’t there, continues to be silent. This adds a whole other layer of suffering.

    If would teach personal responsibility from the beginning there would be a whole layer of suffering removed from many people’s life experience and people would be far more mature.

  6. Richard, God with me in the midst of the suffering, loving me, giving me strength, makes a great difference to me. I don’t believe in the all-powerful god of which you speak.

  7. nakedpastor says:

    i like the way you said that richard. thanks.

  8. June, I’m not sure how you tell the difference between having your god with you and simply choosing to have hope. I noticed that you had the following quote on your website. “Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if in great hope.”

    If this is what you believe then you are in your own words “acting-as-if” you have hope. As far as I know I don’t need a god to act-as-if. I choose to have hope because that is the rational thing to do. It makes no sense to engage anything with despair.

    The core of Viktor Frankl’s work is the logic of hope. The discipline is overcoming one’s conditioning to fear is the challenge. And to me, religion has so many imaginary fears conditioned into children. Christianity’s premise is based in fear because it establishes a narrative that humanity is flawed. We certainly make mistakes, but how would one learn without having the courage to make mistakes?

    My observation is that it is the lack of experience, fear, and immaturity, not sin, that creates suffering in people’s lives. And this is often amplified when people are taught to rely on god when there are things they can clearly do for themselves.

    I’m not saying that you do this, because it appears that you have found a way to make your belief system work for you. The problem is when we claim to know things we can’t possibly know.

    You obviously feel god, but you have no evidence to claim that you know that it is god who helps you. Apparently the part god plays in your life is simply to be with you.

    You may not believe this, but the vast majority of Christians believe that unless one comes into a knowledge of their version of god people will be placed in a lake of fire. To me, this is clearly a god of cruelty and violence.

  9. nakedpastor says:

    I’m hoping Richard you will consider joining my new group I’m starting tomorrow. I would appreciate your voice there.

  10. jeremy says:

    Thought provoking stuff from Frankl and Richard. I am going to have to chew on this for a while. I have many thoughts / questions on suffering… perhaps someone can oblige and engage with me.

    1. So, from the victim’s perspective, there is still a responsibility to “transcend” or find hope. Perhaps someone (physical/spiritual/imaginary) can lead and help them, but wallowing in despair or failing to rise still leaves the person in the midst of suffering without meaning. My heart breaks for broken humanity and I want to do what I can to be there for others without trivialized their suffering or trying to rush healing… but honestly my level of suffering has never really amounted to much, so I cannot experientially walk beside someone. How does one come to the point where they can transcend or find hope?

    2. What of the notion that suffering helps provide context? On a small scale, I can see this working… A simplistic example is that we only know what chairs are comfortable because we have sat in uncomfortable chairs, for instance. On a larger scale, it becomes more difficult to understand this concept. Rape, deep betrayal, even malnourishment, etc. There seems to be something to it, though, if we see suffering as a refinement of who we are. Those who transcend their suffering and come through it, often do so stronger. David, you would not be where you were if you had not experienced the pain that you have experienced and worked your way through it, for example.

    In this case, and the cases of Frankl or Harty, not everyone who suffers is able to find meaning or healing or hope, etc.

  11. nakedpastor says:

    good thoughts jeremy. i think Frankl’s work is extraordinary because no one could accuse him of not really suffering. Auschwitz!! Yet he found a reason to live. That’s what his point is. It wasn’t just to write a book, but to write a book that would help people. But in no way are we ready to berate anyone for struggling to find something to hope in or to find a reason to live in the midst of unspeakable suffering.

  12. Richard, I must say that your response is one of the most interesting and intelligent challenges on matters of faith that I’ve had. First of all, for me, there is a sense of a transcendent, loving presence that takes me beyond myself, especially during difficult times. For me, faith without the experience of God’s presence would be difficult, indeed. Can I prove whatever I’m feeling is God? No, but I believe my life is better, and I am a better person because of God’s loving presence in my life. Simply said, it is God who gives me hope.

    My faith does not at all make me fearful; my faith rather helps me overcome fear. I have to say that at one time my faith did make me fearful, but that was an immature faith. I was taught a lot of crap as I was growing up, but I’ve moved beyond the crap to the core of the Gospel, which for me is the Two Great Commandments to love God and love my neighbor as myself and to do as I would be done to – the Golden Rule. That is the heart of my faith, and I need the God’s help in my life to follow the way Jesus taught.

    I believe firmly that God helps those who help themselves. I pray as though God does it all and act as though I do it all. Of course, I try for balance. The evidence for God’s presence is in how I live my life. The part God plays is to help me to love better, not just in word but in deed.

    Richard, I know that many Christians live their lives in fear, and part of the good that David does with his art and his blog is to try to set people free from faith that leaves them gripped by fear.

    I’ve said, and I believe it to be true that even if someone could prove to me that God does not exist (which can’t be done) and that Jesus is not God, I would still try to live my life according to the Gospel, because I’m convinced it’s the best way.

    You say:

    “Christianity’s premise is based in fear because it establishes a narrative that humanity is flawed.”

    If you can look around in the present day and at human history and say that humanity is not flawed, then more power to you. I don’t know where you live. I live in the US, and we have had two mass shootings within two weeks. Surely, something is not right.

    You also say:

    “My observation is that it is the lack of experience, fear, and immaturity, not sin, that creates suffering in people’s lives.”

    That is not necessarily so. I developed breast cancer 26 years ago. Perhaps it was my lifestyle or something I did that caused my cancer, but the disease runs in my family, so I suggest it was mostly genetic. I do not believe the cancer was a result of sin. Bad things happen to good people even if they do most things right. Of course, at times, we do bring suffering on ourselves.

    I believe in a God of love. I hardly ever think about what happens after death, because I leave that to God, but I’m as sure as I can be about anything that there is no lake of fire awaiting anyone. My task right here and right now is, with God’s help, to follow the way of love as Jesus taught.

  13. June, thank you for your thoughtful response. I am interested in things that I can determine to be true. For many things in life I have to humbly say that I don’t know. I don’t deny the transcendent because I have that feeling too. I don’t happen to connect it with a conscious being because I have no way of determining its origin or description. I also feel no compulsion to worship it either. I am also reasonably sure that it is not connected to the god of the Bible or Christianity. Those reasons are far too expansive to include here, but they are ultimately convincing to me.

    The idea of humanity being flawed is based in a particular world view. Because we don’t like the consequences of violence we label it as wrong and yet most of nature would cease to function without violence. I think in the case in Colorado one could make a good argument that James Holmes is not operating as a full human being. We could call this flawed on an individual level, but to generalize that all humanity is flawed would be an exaggeration. There are many reasons that can be explored in regards to why he acted as he did before we bring out the essentially meaningless “sin” argument.

    Like the word “god,” “sin” is used as an end all to reasoning things out. In both cases we have no way of knowing. So, to me, it is far more honest to say that I don’t know, but lets explore the more likely explanations before we place trust in unprovable religious myths about original sin, a snake, an apple, Adam and Eve.

    Breast cancer has a reason why it happens otherwise it would be pointless to study it as a disease. It is a result of cause and effect factors not sin. And it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. I think is much easier to solve problems when we give up the need to assign blame.

    I happy to hear that you have survived breast cancer. There is something about facing this type of crisis that helps people have clarity about what is really meaningful to them. I have no idea how this event may have affected you, but I have a number of close friends who have lived through this type of cancer.

    This type of clarity doesn’t seem to happen when people inflict suffering on themselves. And you’ll find all kinds of religious narrative about people who have denied themselves by fasting, self flagellation, etc. in an effort to create some sort of meaning for their lives.

    The whole effort of trying to be labelled a “good” person is an exercise in ego. It is far too self conscious. And ultimately it fails. Many of the terrible acts of violence we have experienced recently have been done for religious reasons. The shooter in Norway believed that what he did was for the greater good and his value system was drawn from the very same tradition that you find so loving.

    In practice I agree with many of the things that you choose to do. I just think that there are far better reasons for doing them than a belief in god. Loving your neighbor as yourself, (which is not original with Jesus), for example, is something I find very useful for the very reason that it is self referenced and not god referenced. Apparently Jesus had confidence in humanity’s ability to empathize.

  14. I’m hoping Richard you will consider joining my new group I’m starting tomorrow. I would appreciate your voice there.

    I would be happy to consider it. Just send me the link.


  15. While I would never have chosen to have breast cancer, I can see much good that came from the experience. Having cancer concentrates the mind wonderfully, as they say, and made me look death in the face. I was frightened, to be sure, but one day as I was fretting about the cancer spreading, a light came on, and I thought, well, as of today I don’t know that the cancer has spread, and with my worrying, I am ruining today, and so I stopped. Think how awful it would have been to stay in the worrying state for 26 years. And I know people who have.

    Another thing I learned was to rearrange my priorities and decide what was important to me, and what was important was not the stuff in my life (I was a collector), but the people in my life and doing a bit of good while I was still on this earth.

    I learned not to put off doing the things that I wanted to do that were possible. I’ve always loved to travel, and I’ve done that in spades over the years whenever I could. So although the thing that I dreaded happened to me, I see much good that came as a result of what I’d thought would an altogether bad thing.

    Richard, you say:

    “The whole effort of trying to be labelled a “good” person is an exercise in ego.”

    I don’t care whether I’m labeled a “good” person or not. I assure you that there are people who would not label me a “good” person. I would like to do good, if I can, comfort, relieve suffering, offer sympathy, etc.

    James Holmes is likely suffering from serious mental illness, so he does not operate as a full human being, but I have to ask what does it mean to operate as a full human being? I know no perfect people. We all have our faults, even if for some they are mere peccadilloes. Of course, some might say that our faults are simply evidence of our humanity.

    You are correct to say that much violence has been committed in the name of religion, and it is still happening, and that is surely cause for lament.

    Richard and you, too, Jeremy, have certainly made me think for which I thank you.

  16. James Holmes is likely suffering from serious mental illness, so he does not operate as a full human being, but I have to ask what does it mean to operate as a full human being? I know no perfect people. We all have our faults, even if for some they are mere peccadilloes. Of course, some might say that our faults are simply evidence of our humanity.

    The concept of human perfection is meaningless because we don’t have a definition of perfection. Most definitions of perfection would require all power and all knowledge. These are in the realm of the gods not humans. We have to make mistakes in our learning process because we are human. No one that I know of can predict the future. We operate on limited knowledge. To hold humanity to the standard of perfection is an irrational shame.

    Also the idea that people are good or bad is only useful in a world view that judges people on a fairly arbitrary set of standards. I think we can judge if people create suffering and harm, but even people we label as good create suffering within a world that unfairly distributes resources. It is really a waste of energy on ego to judge people as good or bad.

    I really like the Wiccan moral guide of “Do no harm.” I think this is far more useful than judging if people are good or bad. Another useful concept is this definition of humbleness. Humbleness is not thinking low of oneself. It is not thinking of oneself at all.

    To answer your question of what I consider to be fully human I would say that empathy is the vehicle of consciousness. It is empathy that awakens the self because it connects us to the consciousness of community. And suffering is certainly one vehicle that moves many people to empathize with others who suffer. And this empathy moves many people to act from the one human source free from ego. Love.

  17. Richard, “do no harm” sounds good to me. I’ve enjoyed our discussion, and I think that you, with no faith in God, and I, a person of faith, are not so very far apart in how we choose live our lives.