Are You Suffering? How To Find Meaning Through Life Difficulties

This weekend I am visiting a friend who lives in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. On Saturday, we decided to go in to D.C. to tour the Holocaust Museum.

Needless to say, the experience was profound. For me, it was profoundly shocking and surreal.

Walking through one of the cattle cars that transported thousands of Jews to their deaths, I felt overwhelmed by all of the suffering that one box car contained.

Of even more impact was a room filled with the shoes that prisoners were forced to remove before they were sent to be gassed. Shoes are such personal items, molded by the shape and imprint of the foot of the wearer. Each pair represented real feet of real living beings who once walked on this Earth — individual people who laughed, took care of daily tasks, had family, and held hopes and dreams for the future.

There were many shocking displays and films showing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Of course I knew much about this period in history before I toured the museum. But the experience reminded me of the enormity of the horror and the depth of evil men are capable of inflicting on one another.

Some of the exhibits and films also revealed the capacity for courage, compassion, and love that humans are capable of expressing. There were stories of people willing to put themselves in danger to save others, and stories of the power of love even in the most inhumane and desperate conditions. A film at the end of the tour features Holocaust survivors speaking of the will to live and the conscious choice to find meaning in the midst of suffering.

The visit to the Museum also reawakened my interest in Dr. Victor Frankl, the renowned psychotherapist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of his personal experiences in a Nazi concentration camp which profoundly influenced his life’s work after the war. As a result, he founded logotherapy, a clinical approach to helping patients rediscover meaning in their lives.

Here is an excerpt from the book about his personal awareness of finding meaning in spite of his conditions:

Let me tell what happened on those early mornings when we had to march to our work site.

There were shouted commands: “Detachment, forward march! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! First man about, left and left and left and left! Caps off!” These words sound in my ears even now. At the order “Caps off!” we passed the gate of the camp, and searchlights were trained upon us. Whoever did not march smartly got a kick. And worse off was the man who, because of the cold, had pulled his cap back over his ears before permission was given.

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

For Victor Frankl, the power of love — just the memory and imagination of love — is enough to transport him from his misery and allow him to find meaning even through suffering.

He also recounts how other inmates made the choice for a meaningful existence through their daily actions in the camp. He writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Your personal suffering

Although you and I have not endured the horrors of life in a death camp, each one of us has endured our own private sufferings. Some have been life-altering and traumatic. Others are an accumulation of the small difficulties, indignities, and sorrows we encounter over time. Suffering is simply part of the human experience. We cannot escape it as hard as we try to manage our lives in order to do so.

So how do you respond to suffering?

Do you rail against it?

Do you sink into it, or allow it to taint your entire experience of life?

Victor Frankl reminds us that we have a choice. Even in the most difficult situations, we have a choice about who we want to be, how we want to live, and the power we have to find meaning in life in the midst of suffering. In fact, he suggests that without having meaning in suffering, there can be no real meaning in life.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For each of us in the solitude of our own lives and our personal difficulties, we have a choice about our response to suffering and emotional pain. We can resist it, fall into bitterness or despair, allow it to undermine all aspects of our lives. Or we can rise above our knee-jerk instincts, gather our strength, shift our internal attitudes, and make the choice to find meaning in spite of or through our suffering.

Through suffering we can . . .

  • appreciate the many blessings we have in our lives otherwise;
  • learn more about our capacity for inner strength, forgiveness, and resiliency;
  • transform our sorrow into service, inspiration, and purpose;
  • tap in to our capacity for creativity, action, and love.

I invite you to reflect on the difficulties and suffering you might be experiencing now. Examine your personal response to these situations and your feelings about them. Have you exercised your power of choice in order to find meaning through your hardships? If not, how can you transform your suffering into meaning?

Please share your experiences in the comments below about how you have transformed suffering into meaning.

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18 thoughts on “Are You Suffering? How To Find Meaning Through Life Difficulties”

  1. As humans all suffer at one time or another. Pain and fear from things real or imagined is part of the human condition. Hopefully, we grow better from suffering. Hopefully we learn what is real and what is imagined and we find a way to get through circumstances that cause us to suffer.
    I suffer daily with worry about losing my income. My job is at risk due to performance issues due in part to stress. My husband died last year and I began a new job shortly thereafter. There are issues and problems and I may lose my job and my income. I am not young, the economy is not good and I may have trouble making enough money to stay in my home. So, I suffer from fear, daily.

    • Hi Lois,
      You are so right. We can grow and learn from all things, especially suffering, if we are open to finding the lesson. I am so sorry you are suffering. You have had a very difficult year. Try to be kind to yourself, knowing that you are still grieving. You likely won’t lose your house, but even if you do, what is the worst that could happen? You will be OK. Life has a way of taking care of us.

  2. In my early-30s, as part of “outplacement consulting” the company I would soon be leaving offered, I made a list of my accomplishments. I was shocked at how many started with the words, “I survived….” I don’t know that I transformed any of my traumas into something grand or transcendental and I am pretty sure the point of the exercise was to polish my resume. What I got from the list, and what I still get, is faith. I’ve been through worse and survived. There is tremendous power in that knowledge.

    • Hi Beth,
      Yes, suffering does provide resilience. When you suffer and survive, you know you can get through most things. It is very empowering.

  3. Barry, thank you, we learn so much from those who thru these times did not change their true nature of love.They gave the ultimate definition of seeing past what the were experiencing at the time. Looking outside the box, they were forced in.Thank you and let us not forget all who continue suffering in this way today, and have the hope to endure and share these stories with us to encourage us thru our challenges in life.I have been thru alot of things in my life and at the time did not how I would make it and the poem footsteps always reminded me that we are never alone and need to embrace the fact tha we can get past. A little faith goes a long way.

    • You are so welcome Rich. Yes, there are so many people in the world suffering and enduring atrocities. Suffering is all around us. Faith, hope, and love — these are truly the values that pull us through suffering to the other side.

  4. I suffer daily and struggle with a serious chronic illness. It has stolen my energy and my zest , but not my hope. I pray that I am learning something from all of this that moves me forward in my journey. My mother just died and I have all her “stuff ‘ to get rid of , so dont worry so much about the material things if you have your health you have it all.

    • Hi Cherie,
      I am so sorry about your illness and the loss of your mom. I know how illness can drag you down, and coupled with such a loss, this is an extremely hard time for you. Allow yourself to grieve and heal internally from everything you are coping with. Maybe keeping a journal would be good for you so you can release your feelings and write about what you are learning. Sending loving and healing thoughts your way.

  5. Great post Barrie and such wonderful wisdom from Viktor Frankel. I find myself feeling bad for not having made a better choice in suffering in the past. I guess I can only make the best choice now and ponder the lessons suffering has taught me, and the perspective of my troubles amidst the immeasurable suffering that was the Holocaust.

    • Hi Kathy,
      Try not to suffer more by worrying over past suffering. 🙂 The past is behind you. Perspective is very helpful. It does show us that our problems are manageable for the most part. Perspective truly helps us move past suffering and get on with the business of living and thriving.

  6. Great, great post! I have recently experienced a very similar feeling and came to this type of ideas after I’ve read a book on the blockade of Leningrad. Researching of the topic made me think even more.

    • Hi Dean,
      Sometimes it takes reading something about the suffering of others to help us cope with our own suffering. I haven’t read about the blockade of Leningrad, but now you have intrigued me!

  7. I’m suffering now with my day job. I’ve been here for 10 years without any promotion and very little salary increase. I really wanted to quit and become a full-time blogger and writer, but I’m afraid to take the risk because I have a wife and two kids to support.

    I’m no longer happy because the stress and pressure I feel is not worth it for the measly compensation. But I still do need the money, so I tough it out.

    I find meaning in my life through writing in my spare time, sharing them in my blog, and through my ministry at church. I’m not earning anything from both yet, but I feel most alive and most myself when I do these things.

  8. Hey Barrie,

    I first read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning when I was 23 years old or so. I’ve read it several times since and have read from it maybe several hundred times. It’s one of those rare books that should be required reading for everyone on the planet. It deeply influenced my thinking and the power that a life of meaning and purpose has on the human ability to cope with severe and even torturous circumstances and still thrive.

    Thanks for doing such an amazing job introducing it here.

    I toured the Holocaust Museum here in Los Angeles and had a similar experience. I also took a class in college on the Holocaust. The professor invited survivors to come speak to us. Very powerful stuff,

    • Hi Ken,
      I’m so glad you had exposure to Victor Frankl at such a young age. If you can learn early how to manage suffering and transform it, you have learned an invaluable lesson that can change the quality of your life. In the past, I’ve had a really hard time reading or watching movies about the Holocaust. It is powerful and overwhelming. But it is necessary to see the depths man can go to — what we are capable of. And then to consciously make the choice against even a portion of that on a daily basis.

    • A great little book to read is Wallenberg: Missing Hero. It’s a true account of a Swedish diplomat who saved about a 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust. It’s the inspiring side of the most horrific chapter in world history.

  9. What a great and beautiful post. It’s true: if we play life safe and don’t learn anything the hard way (Holocaust is a whole other level, obviously), we cannot be an artist. “Suffering” is necessary for growth (at least I believe) in a softer sense. I am a musician, so many hours suffering in the practice room yields beautiful results.

    Perhaps not the way you intended the post to hit home, but that’s how it resonated with me.

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