Suffering is something we can’t escape although some of us try really hard. You can even claim that suffering is as much part of life as happiness is. Yin and yang, two sides of the same coin. Although, most of the time, I object to dichotomic views of the world, there’s a point to it.
What I can argue is: suffering is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an important part of life and of what being a human being is all about. And trust me, I’m no masochist. But I’ve learned to find meaning in suffering and hope to pass that on to you—reader.
Do you know the root and meaning of the word crisis? It’s a Greek word and it derives from Krísis—which can lead to growth. Who would have thought that? A crisis is an opportunity for growth. Think about it: after any crisis, there’s always some room for growth and that’s where all the opportunities lie. If you’ve recently lost your job, here’s an opportunity to do the things you’ve always wanted to do, to try something new, to find better work. Of course, an opportunity doesn’t just come along; you need to look for it and seize it.
But what about those personal crisis? The ones that shake your entire world? Is there room for growth and opportunity?
Existential psychotherapist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl’s view on suffering and the meaning of life can help you answer that. To understand Dr. Frankl’s Logotherapy and ideas, you must first know how he developed them. During World War II, Frankl was a prisoner at a concentration camp where he lost several close relatives, including his pregnant wife. He also endured forced labour as well as survived the typhus plague in the camp—he was the camp’s doctor for some time. How do you survive that and still find meaning to your life in the midst of so much suffering?
After surviving the Holocaust, he went back to work, helped others overcome the post-traumatic stress of war, remarried and had a child.
In Frankl’s perspective, finding meaning in suffering can take on three forms: through what you do, who you love in your life or the attitude you take on after an inevitable event that has caused you suffering. You can either use the experience you’ve had to destroy or to build something new.
That’s why some people use catastrophes as opportunities to build a better world and choose love and others keep on spreading hate and chaos—much like what is currently happening in France after Friday the 13th or even 9/11. But as you can easily come to the conclusion, holding on to suffering and resentment/grief will only cause self-destruction. What you need is to take that suffering and turn it into something with meaning and room for growth.
This is one of the reasons why after traumatic events such as these—or even personal crisis such as the loss of a child—people channel that suffering into giving back to others, doing charity, supporting victims, raising money to find cure for illnesses, honouring the memories of the one’s they’ve lost.
One of the most powerful ways to find meaning in your life, to me at least, is taking on the responsibility for what goes on in your life and accepting what really is out of your hands. I know that accepting randomness in our lives is a hard task, since we all so artificially try to control everything. Accepting that being in total control is a lost cause, is halfway into relieving you of a great deal of stress.
Dr. Irvin Yalom, another existential psychotherapist and psychiatrist I greatly admire, frequently asks his patients this: “What you feel is the percentage you can attribute to what goes on in your life that is due to others or randomness?”. Doesn’t matter how they answer, although it’s always best to have a realistic view (it’s not all everyone else’s fault and it’s not all your own fault). Dr. Yalom’s answer will always be: “Let’s work on the other percentage.” — meaning what is your responsibility (whether it’s 10% or 90%). It’s up to you to find a new way, to let go of suffering.
How do you find meaning in suffering?
Let me tell you a personal story. My father died when I was ten. That took a toll on our family and my mother spent the following six years severely depressed and practically not working. One night she was particularly desperate and sick of not getting better and missing my father more than usual. She felt like she couldn’t go through it alone and that it was too difficult to go on living.
She call me and proposed we took some poison together to end all our suffering. I answered no and said I wished to live and that she should think about me. Then I felt quite angry at her for wanting to leave me (after all my father had no choice in that matter), so I told her to do as she pleased and went to bed. My harsh attitude and will to live must have impressed my mother and she gave up on the idea. I went to bed worried sick. I was eleven.
Is there a point to it? Yes there is. Was it extremely painful? Of course it was. But I think of this moment in my life as the first time I helped someone see their meaning in life. I now devote my life to helping other mothers and everyone I can to see there’s an alternative to suicide and that life is worth living. I feel like my mother didn’t have the chance to proper treatment and help and somehow I’m trying to restore some balance in the world by helping others as I wished she could have been.
In case you’re wondering, my mother is alive and well. Free from mental illness although she can get a little crazy from time to time (in a good way!). Hates to talk about that episode that happened nearly twenty years ago. She says she doesn’t recognize that woman and feels ashamed for the pain she caused me. She is now in love with life again.
And on my end, I’m feeling quite happy with my mission in life. It gives me meaning to ease other people’s suffering.
Daniela Anéis has been a clinical psychologist since 2009, with a Masters degree in Systemic at Lisbon University, Portugal. Her first experience as a clinical psychologist was in a private and Catholic mental hospital, the eldest religious congregation in the country devoted to mental health – and a real school. In 2012, she created a community based project at her hometown called Senior’s University which, through volunteer work, teaches classes to people over their 50’s and most of them retired. There are no homework, no tests and no diplomas, only people learning and enjoying life. Besides the classes, the parties, and the field trips, the main objective is to promote active ageing and enhance people’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
As a therapist in private practice, she often works with families and teenagers. She will read anything and everything that has to do with Existential Psychology and Positive Psychology.
Daniela Anéis is an optimistic and her “glass is always half-full.” Her work with active Seniors has taught her to value life even more and most importantly, life-experience. She teaches an Emotional Intelligence and Positive Psychology class but learns far more than she could ever pass on. She always has an inspiring story to tell about her “students”.
She’s hoping to reach 90 and live life to the fullest. Always working to be the better version of herself. And believing her mission in life is to relieve others from suffering.
Read more about Daniela at her blog. (In Portugese)
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