Suffering Can Have Meaning

Not all suffering is pointless.

“A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.” — Viktor Frankl

Suffering seems pointless at first.

But meaning can be found in one’s reaction to it. Viktor Frankl opened my eyes to this possibility in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He experienced suffering like few others.

Starting in 1942, Frankl endured a total of three long years at four Nazi concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering, and Türkheim. Prisoners at these camps were initially stripped of everything material. Then they were brutalized to such an extent that they lost their humanity.

Many prisoners were sent immediately to their deaths in gas chambers or crematoriums right off the train. The rest experienced a famine of the body and soul even as they were forced into back-breaking labor under the yoke of endless cruelty. Survival became the sole focus. Any decision could be the death of them.

Frankl describes a prisoner’s journey as one consisting of three stages.

  1. Suicide as you realize the hopelessness of the situation. You become frantic at the unknown fate of family. You realize death can come for you in an instant, without warning.

  2. Apathy as you and those around you are routinely knocked down, beaten and brutalized... sometimes for no reason at all. Dying and death are so common that you become unmoved by it. You no longer avert your eyes.

  3. Bewilderment if you are fortunate enough to find freedom once more. In the struggle to recover your humanity, you reflect on the knowledge of who man really is.

It is in this setting that Frankl became acquainted with the true nature of suffering. He found that suffering itself could have meaning through his response to it.

Many of us experience the terminal illness of loved ones. Like Frankl, they often bear the weight of death with grace and dignity. They make towering monuments of their response. They inspire all of us to live life while we can to the fullest.

Here lies meaning in suffering.