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the-meaning-of-suffering

Whenever one is confronted with an inescapable unavoidable situation, whenever one has to face a fate which cannot be changed, e.g., incurable disease such as inoperable cancer; just then one is given the last chance to actualize the highest-value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering. For what matters above all is the attitude we take towards suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves.


Let me cite a clear-cut example: Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of the wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything.’ but instead confronted him with the question,” What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died and your wife would have had to survive you’ he said, “for her, this would have been terrible. She would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared, and it was you who have spared her this suffering- but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.


Of course, this was no therapy in the proper sense since, first, his despair was no disease; and second, I could not change his fate, I could not revive his wife. But that moment I did succeed in changing his attitude and his unalterable fate inasmuch as from that time on he could at least see a meaning in his suffering. It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.


It goes without saying that suffering would not have a meaning unless it was absolutely necessary; e.g. Cancer which can be cured by surgery must not be shouldered by the patient as though it were his cross. This would be masochism rather than heroism. But if a doctor can neither heal the disease nor bring relief to the patient by easing his pain, he should enlist the patient’s capacity to fulfill the meaning of his suffering. Traditional psychotherapy has aimed at restoring one’s capacity to work and to enjoy life; logotherapy includes these, yet goes further by having the patient regain his capacity to suffer, if need be, thereby finding meaning even in suffering.

In this context Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, professor of psychology at Purdue University, contends, in her article on logotherapy,’ that “our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of mal-adjustment Such a value system might be responsible for the far that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.” And in another paper’ she expresses the hope that logotherapy “mat help counteract certain unhealthy trends in the present:- day culture of the United States, where the incur=: sufferer is given very little opportunity to be pro…: his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather degrading so that ‘he is not only unhappy but ashamed of being unhappy.


There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or to enjoy one’s what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely,  life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one for it even includes the potential meaning of suffering.

Let me recall that which was perhaps the deepest experience I had in the concentration camp. The odds of surviving the camp were no more than I to 20, as zar easily be verified by exact statistics. It did not even seem possible, let alone probable, that the manuscript my first book which I had hidden in my coat when l arrived at Auschwitz, would ever be rescued. Thus, I had to undergo and to overcome the loss of my spiritual And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would s,..7.vive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own! So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.
Not yet did I notice that an answer to this question with which I was wrestling so passionately was already n store for me, and that soon thereafter this answer would be given to me. This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn, inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the main Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

A bit later, I remember, it seemed to me that I would die in the near future. In this critical situation, however, my concern was different from that of most of my comrades. Their question was, ” Will we survive the camp? For, if not, all this suffering has no meaning.” The question which beset me was,” Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance- as to whether one escapes or not- ultimately would not be worth living at all.”

This excerpt is taken from the Book “Man’s Search for meaning.”

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