An Insight a Day

What Is the Meaning of Suffering?

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his 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 first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”

“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”

He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Man's Search for Meaning

I recently finished reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, and there were quite a few moments where the book hit me hard. One such moment was on the meaning of suffering quoted above.

Of course, the book later notes that suffering is not necessary for finding meaning. Meaning is possible even despite suffering, provided that the suffering is unavoidable. If avoidable, we should remove the cause of suffering since unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic.

What's impressive is how the book shifts the perspective of suffering and reframes it in a way that gives meaning. While the situation remains the same, the way we interpret and respond to it can completely change how it impacts our lives. By finding and giving our suffering meaning, we gain the strength to transcend the pain and carry on with our lives. Such is the power of the human spirit.