"When suffering is given meaning within a larger context, it becomes something positive. Suffering will be negative in that it hinders the fulfilment of the biological aims of the body; negative in that it involves pain or frustration over unsated desires and needs; negative in that it frustrates our practical pursuit of everyday goals. Yet it becomes positive by virtue of the meaning-giving aspect of our existence."
Viktor Frankl, the celebrated author of “Man’s Search For Meaning”, put it wisely: “In some way suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”
In his incarceration at a concentration camp during Hitler’s hegemonic rule, Frankl conceived of a way of overcoming and transcending the unimaginable horrors of their confinement, helping his fellow prisoners survive, by suggesting positive meanings and reasons for their suffering.
Suffering, like happiness, is something subjective or relative. It lies in the one who suffers. Whether someone is suffering or not, we cannot somehow tell or judge objectively. Take the case of martyrs who endured extreme physical suffering before their death.
From the point of view of an observer, it is easy to say, “Oh, how enormously they must have suffered”. On the other hand, on the part of the martyrs, maybe they did not deem the agonizing pain they went through as suffering. Like St. Lorenzo Ruiz, it is told that while he was being tortured he was joyfully singing praises to God.
Yes, we abhor suffering – that’s our basic, instinctive human reaction. But it is worth noting that those who survived extreme suffering surpassed the limits of suffering and, so, it can be said that they reached a point where they no longer suffered.
Existentialist philosophers – like Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jean Paul Sartre – agree that suffering, “angst”, and despair are meaningful “leaps of faith” toward an authentic existence or self-transcendence.
But no, let me clarify my point. Not that I am just about accepting suffering as it is. Suffering for its own sake veritably smacks of defeatism, if not nihilism (or something as devoid of meaning).
Suffering is basically unacceptable especially if it is caused or arising from the evil or harmful actions of another person. But finding meaning in suffering is not necessarily accepting, tolerating or condoning the evil actions of the one who’s causing suffering. Rather, acknowledging the factual helplessness of the situation, meaning-giving in suffering is transcending or going beyond the evil roots of suffering and thus overcoming it.
Viktor Frankl, in helping his fellow prisoners scour for snippets of positivity amid their harrowing situation, was in no way subscribing to the profligate evils of the Holocaust or of Hitler’s megalomaniacal exploits. In the same vein, thus, as Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, reflecting also on the Holocaust, contends that God was silent in Auschwitz even as he claims that there is a non-theological meaning of suffering. “Suffering is the unique possibility for overcoming the isolation that we all experience as atomistic individuals in a narcissistic society. Our encounter with the suffering of another calls upon our responsibility and awakens us to the real presence of the other in his or her need,” Levinas wrote.
The same perhaps too with our present wrenching pandemic suffering. While the truth remains elusive about whether Covid-19 is a natural or human evil by origin as well as the unresolved questions shrouding the vaccines, the sad fact is that, for already over a year, the number of deaths has kept on spiralling along with the cropping up of variants and viral mutations. In a word, our present plight is undeniably one of uncertainty, grief, and enormous suffering.
Curiously, notwithstanding the persistent conspiracy theories, warts and all – and with the abattoir of devastation this pandemic has wrought – can we ever yet imagine a positive meaning out of all these?
On a personal note, to my mind, the senseless deaths, lockdowns, restrictions, and social or inter-personal alienations have pushed me to the realization of what are those that MATTER MOST in life: not what we acquire, but what we build in our relationship with God, our family, and others; not what we get, but what we share; not our titles or positions, but our character; not our success, but our significance; not what we have attained or achieved, but how HAPPY we have LOVED and lived a meaningful and satisfying life.
In sum, suffering, by itself, is something negative, or “experienced” as negative. But when suffering is given meaning within a larger context, it becomes something positive. Suffering will be negative in that it hinders the fulfilment of the biological aims of the body; negative in that it involves pain or frustration over unsated desires and needs; negative in that it frustrates our practical pursuit of everyday goals. Yet it becomes positive by virtue of the meaning-giving aspect of our existence.
Don’t despair on your suffering – find its meaning, and then you can transcend or overcome it.
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