HACK / MAKE

On Suffering

In the forward for Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Harold Kushner, author of the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, introduces a theme that threads through Frankl’s recount of his three years spent in Nazi concentration camps:

Life is primarily not a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power as Alfred Alder taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.

Frankl’s endurance through the concentration camps taught him that all but one thing can be taken away from a man. His things, his family and loved ones, his voice, freedom, and health can be taken, but the last of the human freedoms that can be stolen is the ability “to chose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.”

No matter your position, wealth, fame, or spirituality, you will continuously encounter affliction throughout your life. No more or less of anything worldly or heavenly will help you allude suffering. You can’t chose to avoid it, only how you deal with it when it comes. The choice you are given is what attitude you respond to suffering with.

The form and timing of suffering varies greatly. It’s the awkward conversation with your least favorite coworker just as much as it’s the chemotherapy you and your wife struggle through as she fights breast cancer. Suffering is walking in the rain when your bus didn’t show up and it’s living on after the death of your young child. The affliction in these situations differ greatly but the choice to respond accordingly is equally present in all.

Suffering is inevitable and when it comes, choose to respond with grace and courage.

Having courage in difficult times, which Frankl suggests as a source of meaning in our lives, determines how we respond to the hardships presented. We can’t choose what we are dealt but we are in control of our response. Responding to suffering with grace and understanding at the equal and adequate level—mind like water1—requires courage to counteract the visceral response of anger and vengeance. The accurate response to suffering also requires patience, control, and a reflexive understanding of the situation.

I don’t intend to answer the eternal question of why suffering exists but it does exist, so it only makes sense that there is a greater meaning to each of our struggles. How can we determine what this is and what we can do with it?

Much of our society lives only to serve themselves. They build up possessions, relationships, and beliefs that are to satisfy their curiosity of the question of existence. As suffering is inevitable, it follows us through life and will oppress us, deflate us, and slow us down. Life can be lived without questioning anything beyond ones self but when suffering begins the questions of why begin. Those questions are prompted because they are core to suffering. Suffering doesn’t happen without a why and answering that question helps validate that instance of it.

Suffering is only valid if it’s for some greater cause. To not suffer in vain, seek answers and understanding.

Understanding suffering comes from experiencing it. Over time, we develop a tolerance to the pain, anxiety, and frustration of these hardships and grow an understanding of it. You learn to leverage the hardest parts and appreciate the parts of it that push you forward. The more of these situations we experience, the better we grasp how they can be benefit and improve our lives. Suffering doesn’t disappear the more we pursue it but we learn to endure it because of our understanding of its role in a greater cause, for or beyond ourselves.

Frankl’s release came when he recognized and understood the greater gain of his suffering in concentration camps. He envisioned himself, a professor and psychologist, lecturing on the psychology of concentration camps. He began to see his troubles as a psycho-scientific study rather than meaningless oppression. He quotes Spinoza’s Ethics as a mantra:

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Through mindfulness we can form a clear understanding of why our case of suffering is important to our greater character and cause. Grasping this requires a perspective of courage, strength, and longevity rather than oppression, stress, and hopelessness.

The more we pursue and persevere through suffering the less we suffer.

Suffering is relieved by a clarified understanding that comes from mindfulness, which is rooted in courage and hope. Courage and understanding comes from experiencing suffering. To suffer with meaning requires an understanding of the suffering’s value in life. Don’t try to avoid suffering; realize that its inevitable. Embrace your choice in navigating suffering and respond to it in a way that brings clarity and understanding. Understand the connection between your suffering and a greater cause.

Make suffering a search for meaning.


  1. A term used in the martial arts and talked about by David Allen in the first chapter of Getting Things Done , where ones response is totally appropriate and equal in force to the input. Mind Like Water is also often related to a Bruce Lee quote 

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