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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Finding Meaning in Suffering



I've been reading through Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" and I'm through the first half, which chronicles Frankl's time in a German concentration camps during WWII. The conditions were, from my point of view, unbearable. The amount of work and the shortage and irregularity of food rations (maybe one piece of bread a day, and perhaps some watered down soup) make it hard to believe that any human being could live through it. Oh, and add to that the fact that they lived under the constant threat of death if they showed that they were becoming frail or if they upset an officer.

And yet Frankl and others were able to somehow survive.

Frankl makes the point that those who made it through had some future objective and hope before them. They also were able to find meaning in their suffering. Their pain had to have purpose. The abuse and suffering was so great that if it was perceived as being senseless or without purpose and if the prisoner had no hope for the future then the prisoner would give up and allow himself to die.

Meaning is critical to enduring extreme circumstances that push us past our physical/biological, emotional, and psychological limits. What are the consequences of those who do not have extreme circumstances? For those of us Americans who have relatively easy lives: Flavored lattes, multistory houses, state of the art stereo systems, Comfy SUVs, etc., etc., etc. Is meaning and purpose even important when you do not suffer?

Or do we find ways to suffer? Do we have to invent suffering? Do we now give the label of "suffering" to trivial things: Waiting in line for my coffee, paying a little more property taxes, dealing with a neighbor who doesn't take care of their lawn, having a chair that is not ergonomically correct, losing a few hours of sleep, etc.

What does it mean for our generation to "suffer"??? Do we really and truly find meaning in our suffering? Do we suffer for a higher purpose or for a greater calling?

9 comments:

Melody said...

I think the problem with finding meaning when you are comfortable is that it pushes you to do things that aren't comfortable.

If I believe that my purpose is to help others I could end up actually doing that...and possibly instead of sitting at home watching American Idol. I might even end up doing it somewhere, where there is no option to watch American Idol and that truly makes me cringe.

I don't think people lable things like you mentioned as suffering, but I do think we are more at leisure to be irritated.

Suffering puts things into sharp focus. When we're comfortable things get fuzzy and things seem important that aren't...so it seems reasonable to us that clothes or cars would be just as valid goals as...whatever becomes important when you haven't got anything.

Do you think people in concetration camps were really suffering for a higher purpose or calling? It was arbitrary. They happened to have the wrong ethnicity. The exception would be those who were taken because they opposed what was being done.

ktismatics said...

"Suffering is overrated." That's my mother's saying -- she was paralyzed by polio, could move only her head and one hand, couldn't breathe without mechanical assistance. I don't doubt Frankl's experience, but others who've commented on surviving the death camps had a different experience. They say it was so dehumanizing that any sense of meaning was completely abandoned, and people were reduced to pure physical survival. I knew guys who were in Vietnam who had the same experience: keep your head down, don't get shot, don't take chances, don't think about the meaning of what you're doing, just survive. I presume Jesus had this same sense of loss of meaning on the cross: "why have you forsaken me?" Suffering = loss of meaning and hope, perhaps.

samlcarr said...

I have experienced culture shock a number of times in my life. probably the most severe was when i moved from the US to India. Luxury to poverty, not so much personally but in one's surroundings.

I was very surprised to find that Indians did not have a penchant for visiting their psychotherapists. In fact psychiatry as a field is almost nonexistent in India. I think I agree with you. We need to struggle, we need to suffer and when life is a bit too easy physically we invent problems for ourselves.

ktismatics said...

Melody suggests that maybe we have more capacity to tolerate discomfort than we give ourselves credit for, and I agree. Suffering for the sake of something seems justified. Suffering as a kind of existential therapy seems like just another twist on self-absorption, a kind of masochistic thrill. But maybe not: maybe it's a good idea to let yourself get outside your comfort zone for the sake of peronal growth.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam:
I was very surprised to find that Indians did not have a penchant for visiting their psychotherapists. In fact psychiatry as a field is almost nonexistent in India.

I once talked to someone from another culture/continent who mentioned that there wasn't any such thing as personal psychological therapy or counseling, etc. They commented that one's neighbor was a counselor and when you had problems and issues you just talked about them with your friends and neighbors.

In our culture it seems as though the lack of intimacy and community has led to the development of a psychology of counseling. Cross reference the lead character (played by Edward Norton) on Fight Club who suffered from insomnia. His only means of getting sleep and rest was to attend support groups and to cry with people who were suffering from diseases. He, himself, was not suffering from any of the diseases, but he simply needed a release - the ability to cry on someone's shoulder and feel open and vulnerable.

I think that in our society the self is fragmented and fractured. The lack of intimacy in community and the inability to develop open and vulnerable relationships is one of the reasons.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody:
Do you think people in concetration camps were really suffering for a higher purpose or calling? It was arbitrary. They happened to have the wrong ethnicity. The exception would be those who were taken because they opposed what was being done.

ktismatics:
I don't doubt Frankl's experience, but others who've commented on surviving the death camps had a different experience. They say it was so dehumanizing that any sense of meaning was completely abandoned, and people were reduced to pure physical survival.

Good points. Frankl does bring out the fact that prisoners were reduced to an animal-like instinct for survival. It was de-humanizing. But I believe that Frankl's point is that even in this state of mind there still had to be a purpose or a reason - even if it wasn't something in the present moment there had to be a future hope of seeing a relative or pursuing a career or finishing one's life's work. The future meaning made the present suffering bearable.

And then I think Frankl seems to say that those who can find meaning in the present suffering would have a far better capacity to deal with it. How would you find meaning in senseless and absurd suffering? This would vary from person to person, but for those who somehow found a sense of higher purpose in their present suffering there was a unique strength and ability to endure. They somehow found sense in the senseless; meaning in the absurd.

That's my understanding of Frankl....

ktismatics said...

As to Sam's and Jon's points, psychotherapy is geared toward alleviating psychological suffering. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, purposely tries to make the client uncomfortable. The goal is self-understanding, which can be an angsty kind of endeavor. Clearly more European than American or Indian.

Melody said...

I know it's an over-used arguement, but doesn't stuff like therapy go back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

If you're starving you're not worried about finding acceptance or how you mother's death affected you,but once you have a sandwich or two in your belly, you can turn your thoughts to other things.

image said...

For those who have never suffered great loss or gone through great turmoil. They can not say, "I have had to relay on God for everything." When I say everything I don't mean luxeries, such as extra clothing,a cell phone, or redecorating your apartement in a "chic" design.

Yet, sometimes people can be going through emotion suffering in which we would not be able to recognize. They could have all the luxerious their hearts desire, and still be seeking a purpose through their suffering.
For those who have gone through suffering I do believe they find meaning within the pain. Once the suffering has hit its worst moment and there seems to be no other possibilty for it to improve. Then the best coping mechanism is finding meaning, or purpose through out ones day.
Many time during WWII the Concentration Camp Prisoners would at first find themselves wanting to escape, and this urge would be so strong. This urge was so strong, because it was a sense of survival. Yet, as time moved on they realized there was no escaping. The suffering grew worse as (especially for the Jewish people) the War prolonged, and as the war prolonged their purpose seemed unclear. THrough shear force,will, and God the prisoners would find purpose by planning escape tunnels, forging for food, finding ways to plant gardens, and even learning how to survive. Their whole purpose was survial.
Even though their suffering is much more extreme then we will probably ever experience in our life time. We can take with us the fact that we can find deep, real meaning in suffering. Many times God brings suffering into our lives for a greater purpose and we can't see the plan that He sees, because we look through tinted glasses. These glasses many times shade the real purpose that God has for our lives, and especially when going through a period of difficulty. Because all we can think of at the time is "How can I fix this?", or "When will this end?", Yet we forget to ask, "God what is your purpose?"