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Can suffering really lead to a meaningful life?

Welcome to the first blog from Evolvida!

I thought that I would start my blog with exploring the concept of what it means to seek meaning in our lives and why some of us question it more than others.

I think it’s fair to say that experiencing loss is a good reason to start questioning things – that doesn’t necessarily have to mean the finality of death but loss of anything significant in our life can make us stop, pause, reflect, question ….

In my own quest to understand the meaning of my life after a series of extremely sad losses, I found comfort in reading books as a way of connecting with others who may have had similar experiences as I wanted answers to the questions such as “What is the point of this suffering? …. Why have I been challenged and tested so much/more than others? … How do I make sense of all?”

And most importantly, “How do I keep going and find a reason to carry on and still be there for my family who love me?” So, fairly deep, philosophical questions that weren’t going to be answered overnight …

I sought out books on the meaning of life, dealing with loss, etc. but the book that stuck with me the most (and which I passed on to a friend as I believe a good book should always be shared!) was Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and I was captivated by his story.

He famously quoted “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” His point being that we all have choices in how we live – nobody else can take that choice away from us, no matter what life has thrown at us.

Frankl was a psychiatrist before being forced to work in the concentration camps which, no doubt, gave him a greater understanding of the complexity of the human mind.

It was this understanding that helped him to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the experience. He concluded that peoples’ motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances and found that those around him who did not lose their sense of purpose and meaning in life were able to survive much longer than those who had lost their way.

Frankl later pointed to research indicating a strong relationship between “meaninglessness” and criminal behaviours, addictions and depression. Without meaning, people fill the void with hedonistic pleasures, power, materialism, hatred, boredom, or neurotic obsessions and compulsions.

He says that some also strive for Suprameaning – the ultimate meaning in life, a spiritual kind of meaning that depends solely on a greater power outside of personal or external control. I understand this interpretation to be religion.

In the pursuit of meaning, Frankl recommends 3 different courses of action:

1) through deeds

2) experience of values through some kind of medium (beauty through art, love  through a relationship, etc)

3) suffering

While the third is not necessarily in the absence of the first two, within Frankl’s frame of thought, suffering became an option through which to find meaning and explore values in life in the absence of the other two opportunities.

Frankl sees our ability to respond to life and to be responsible to life as a major factor in finding meaning and therefore, fulfillment in life. In fact, he viewed responsibility to be the “essence of existence”. He believed that humans were not simply the product of the environment and that they had the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for their own lives.

This “third element” of decision is what Frankl believed made education so important; he felt that education must be directed towards the ability to make decisions, take responsibility and then become free to be the person you decide to be.

What do you think? Do you think Frankl was right about meaning? I’d love to hear your comments.

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