Finding Meaning in Suffering: How Existentialism Can Help

Iva Paska, PhD
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Suffering is a universal human condition. But without making meaning of suffering, it can overwhelm us. Finding meaning in suffering might help to find the will to survive when life is difficult. This is what I have learned from existentialism and what can be of help.

Suffering needs re-formulation that connects it back to meaning. Today’s mental health ideas, terms, and narratives are colonized by empty technical language. This language and conception of suffering make it seem meaningless. This is, however, the language of the 20th century paradigm of materialism, the language which stems from technical rationality and was intended to help with the effectiveness of industrial production (which it did). This perception of reality has poured from the economic system into other areas of life, such as medicine and mental health. Along the way it has also contributed to robbing them of meaning.

In order to endure suffering within the human experience, we have to have meaning—a reason for which to endure it. This is one of the basic propositions of existentialism. There has to be something or someone outside of ourselves towards which we will be oriented in order to endure suffering. Without this transcendental meaning, suffering is not only seen but is also felt as meaningless. And this is what happens when suffering is clothed in technical linguistic descriptions and terms. It becomes an empty phenomenon unrelatable to one’s personal history or future—a failure, a malfunction, something to be fixed. Our language constructs our reality and perception, and this is what happens when mental distress is stripped of meaning.

Existentialism considers meaning to be fundamental to the will to live. The founder of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, was imprisoned in the concentration camp Auschwitz during the Second World War. He observed that while many people, of course, died as a direct result of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, others died by committing suicide or slipping away when they lost the will to survive. Those who were able to find meaning—or a reason to stay alive—had more chances of not succumbing to the suffering, in spite of all the horror of the heart-breaking experiences that they experienced in Auschwitz.

Frankl himself realized that the manuscript about logotherapy that was taken from him upon arrival is something he wanted to write again, and that he wanted to write another one on his experiences from the concentration camp from a psychological perspective. And that is what gave him meaning, a reason to stay alive throughout the whole gruesome experience. In times of struggle he would direct his thoughts to the writing of that manuscript in the future. When he eventually managed to come out of the concentration camp, he did write it—and that is how logotherapy, one of the branches of existentialist psychotherapy, was conceived.

What Viktor Frankl noticed in that concentration camp was that meaning made a contribution to chances one had of staying alive—having someone or something to stay alive for was felt as an orientation, as something that very palpably helped people to endure the worst horrors of physical, psychological, and soul torture that humankind can imagine. Whether the person had something to live for was a reason that helped them to stay alive, in spite of poor physical condition, constant humiliation, torture, and hunger, as well as the closeness to death that was constantly present in the camp. The one who has suffered and survived these horrible experiences can teach us something about our own existence today.

Today, in the time of the COVID pandemic, we are especially invited to rediscover the boundless wisdom of Frankl’s teachings. There was already a lack of adequate response to the global mental health crisis even before this pandemic. This pandemic now adds to the mental health crisis on a level which is unprecedented in recent history. Society, on the global level, seems disoriented and confused as to what to do. A crisis of this magnitude is another invitation to rediscover teachings of existentialism. It is a philosophy and psychotherapy which has emerged from reflection on the greatest sufferings in history. It deals exactly with types of situations that other viewpoints might see as extreme.

In accordance with existentialist propositions, our suffering must not be in vain. It can be oriented towards something and this orientedness-towards-something is what Frankl observed in people who held on in the camp.

This orientation can make all the difference to the experience of suffering. The very existence of suffering already requires meaning in order to endure it. However, when interpretations of suffering or situations causing suffering lack something-beyond-the-situation-of-suffering towards which they are oriented, they make the situation seem even more meaningless. This character of orientedness-towards-something is the basic building block of meaning. This gives the lived experience of suffering depth and purpose that empty technical descriptions do not give.

In existentialism it is understood that this is a prerequisite for living a meaningful life, this orientation towards something other than oneself, towards something beyond oneself, whether it be other people, a goal to pursue, or some other kind of meaning that we feel as personally significant. When this connection is broken, we experience meaninglessness. This can happen as a result of a crisis which shifts our worldview and shatters old beliefs, whether individually or collectively.

Increasingly, people individually today experience this due to the invasion of technical accounts of reality and the lack of symbolic ones. So when crises of a certain magnitude happen, whether in individual or collective life, they are pathologized and named in technical terms in order to be managed through the system which is guided by technical rationality. But all the while, there is another way of looking at them. Existentialism can help here, since it does not use technical language and it looks at the person as a whole and as related to experiences which give her or him meaning.

In everyday life many people do not think about what existentialism calls existential givens—states that all of us will inevitably face at some point in our life. We do our everyday tasks, pay our bills, and often do not concern ourselves with great questions of existence such as illness, death, freedom, anxiety, loneliness. However, when something unexpected happens, we can suddenly be transferred to a different mode of existence where we start questioning the meaning or absurdity of life or things in life.

This “something that happens” is usually circumstances that literally shake the very existential core of our beings and force us to reconsider our ways of seeing things and living.

A crisis, a death of a loved one, an unexpected grief, or extreme emotional distress can throw us into a sudden encounter with this different mode of existence. Collectively, this is what is happening with the current COVID pandemic on the societal level. These are the situations that momentarily lift the veil that helps us not to think about existential givens in everyday life, and we are forced to think about them. We start pondering our very existence and its basic questions: meaning, death, anxiety, loneliness.

The fact that this kind of crisis brings us closer to inspection of existential givens means that it also presents an opportunity for discovering the uniqueness of our existence. This is another thing I have learned from existentialism. We are, each one of us, unique. This sounds banal but it is really not. It is the reason why I fell in love with existentialism.

In many psychotherapeutic directions and psychological theories, the whole focus is often on past childhood traumas. This can sometimes cause endless ruminating about the past and about the lacking conditions that made a person who he or she is. Existentialism also looks at conditions of our existence. It is aware of so-called “facticity,” of the fact that we are born and exist within conditions we haven’t ourselves chosen or requested, with all of its limitations. However, its focus lies in reflection on how these conditions we experience make us into unique human beings with possible unique contributions.

The practice of existentialism asks very concretely what you personally can take from all of your unique circumstances. Your circumstances are uniquely your own. Your origin, your story, the things you’ve seen, the experiences lived and felt—nobody has done that or felt that in that particular way and in that particular manner but you. Your existence is uniquely your own and cannot be transferred or exchanged for someone else’s. What can you learn from this? And even more important, is there something that emerges from this and that you can offer to the world?

As Viktor Frankl proposed: You are being asked by life what it is that you and only you can offer to the world. What does this situation ask of you, what is to be done? This is one possible direction on the road to discovering our meaning.

Because, as existentialism also teaches us, life is short. We only have limited time in life, which is another important characteristic of existentialist thinking—this awareness that we never know when we can be thrown out of life. In existentialism, only when we confront the facticity of death can we become an authentic version of ourselves. This is something to learn from. If one reflects on one’s life in the context of its shortness combined with the uniqueness of one’s situation, this can bring a new light to our everyday actions. This is not a pure reflection or theoretical exercise. For existentialism, the answer lies within action. Action is what is there to answer the question that life asks precisely us, uniquely and originally.

The reflection on the shortness of our life and the uniqueness of our existence that existentialism offers can bring a new kind of perspective into existence. It is from this position that we can learn that it could be wise to think about who we are and perhaps start making conscious choices on how we want to spend our limited amount of time in life. And what life asks us to do from the conditions, limitations, and opportunities of our unique existence. As Viktor Frankl’s story shows, this way of thinking can be a life-altering stance even in the most dire circumstances of suffering.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

11 COMMENTS

    • “This gives the lived experience of suffering depth and purpose that empty technical descriptions do not give.”

      Very true, and that’s a good synopsis of why the “invalid” “empty technical descriptions” / DSM disorders, and the “bible” in which they exist, needs to be flushed.

      Ron, I presume by “finding ‘the’ meaning,” you mean the billable DSM disorder? The DSM disorders distract from finding the true and “unique meanings,” behind people’s legitimate distress.

      This is why I’ve said that misdiagnosing a child abuse or rape survivor as “PTSD,” or “depressed,” or “bipolar,” or as anything other than honestly describing them as a child abuse or rape survivor, is problematic.

      And misdiagnosing child abuse or rape survivors is the number one actual primary function of the “mental health” industry, historically and today, since you can’t bill to help them.

      https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
      https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
      https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

      The DSM is, by design, a systemic child abuse covering up “bible.” It is “invalid” and “unreliable,” it should be flushed.

      • When I referenced finding “the meaning” I meant finding the kind of meaning that is common in a society or in those who consider themselves “sane.” I think there are many other varieties of life affirming meaning to be found.

        Regarding the contention that we should never categorize anyone who has been abused beyond the general category of abuse survivor – I think that isn’t quite right, because people find themselves in different states post-abuse. Some continue to be highly distressed by the abuse lives on within them, while others find or perhaps are helped to find ways of making sense of what happened that leave them free to focus on moving their lives forward. That’s an important distinction to talk about, whether you do it by talking in terms of DSM language (with all its flaws) or some other, hopefully more nuanced approach.

  1. It seems like the meaning of life is finding how we can fit in with others. It’s more than just cooperating, it’s being a part of each other’s lives, it’s knowing about each other, making the little niches in our minds where we keep our knowledge of each other. Our meaning is in the dependability of the niches we occupy in other people’s minds. Just a thought.

  2. Definitely a good reminder to look further than suffering, although it might be a whole lot easier
    for some, due to factors we will never understand.

    “others died by committing suicide or slipping away when they lost the will to survive. ”

    I often felt that words such as “attitude” or “will” were not helpful and often the people demonstrating these traits, take credit for them, and I think it makes some people feel ashamed or like failures if they can’t “find meaning”.

    I’m sure the people that Victor lost in that Holocaust were not failing do demonstrate “will” or lack of “orientation to meaning”. Perhaps there were a ton of factors involved.
    The words sometimes might suggest to people that they are failures for not bucking up. And sure, a “strong will” or “belief, hope” can make you live longer, maybe just long enough to be rescued. Or perhaps it helps the immune system greatly.
    Everyone has a limit of endurance.

    • Totally agree with you on this, sam. It makes me think of the biblical story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the desert. Jesus, at one point, said to the devil, “It is written: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” I feel this is applicable to people generally, inasmuch as I believe there is a spark of God in everyone (though in some it seems so deeply buried as to be imperceptible). How many people are “put to the test” and “fail”? With something like the Holocaust, it is totally understandable to me that some people just gave up. It’s great that some were able to endure and even thrive thereafter. But people shouldn’t be “put to the test” to begin with.

  3. In the Acts of John http://www.gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm that was not included in the new testament there is a passage said to have come from Jesus himself regarding suffering. Even if this story were to be untrue, what is being said speaks volumes

    If thou hadst known how to suffer,
    thou wouldest have been able not to
    suffer. Learn thou to suffer, and thou
    shalt be able not to suffer”

    From what is said above, there are two kinds of suffering: real and imaginary. Carl Jung looks at this psychologically by saying “all neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering”. Jung would most likely agree with Meher Baba when Baba tells us what happens when we break free from imaginary i.e. neurotic suffering

    “An individual who mistakenly believes that he is a coward may live a lifetime of misery during which all his actions are shaped by this incorrect belief. But if some event in his life challenges him so deeply that he unthinkingly strides forth with great courage, then the illusion will suddenly vanish and he will see himself as a different being. Often it takes real crisis to bring out a sure knowledge of the real inner self, and it is always a creative knowledge.”

    As I understand all the above, when we suffer greatly it inevitably carries with it an existential dimension even though we may not be aware of it. What is tragic is that when we suffer repeatedly in various ways and degrees we never put it into question. We assume that because so many people suffer, it’s normal to suffer even though we are not aware of the degree in which suffering keeps us in bondage. From my own experience, delving deep into my unresolved feelings going as far back as childhood and bringing them into light of awareness was very painful but also liberating. I regard this experience as the drama that ends all drama. My liberation gave me a newfound awareness and a renewed perception of reality of the likes I never thought possible (it’s also a lonely state of mind). I regard this awareness as the result of legitimate suffering which is qualitatively different from neurotic suffering that never ends. I believe we can all wake up but it is not for the fainthearted. It takes a lot of courage and humility. But once realized, we become MORE human. So much so, our identification with our given race, religion, and political affiliation drop off considerably. You see the world with new eyes. Dr Robert Firestone said that

    “Our society actually exists as a kind of negative afterimage. We all live in a crazy, backward world, often unaware of the lies and double messages we are given. If we could be free for a moment to catch a glimpse of our true situation, if we could view our society as a visitor from another planet, we would be stunned at the nightmare in which we live. The things we are expected to believe about ourselves and about society are frequently the very opposite of the way things really are. Unhappily, the individual and all the members of our society are often unconsciously working together to maintain a largely defensive and dishonest way of living”

    The above quote implies that we have all been culturally conditioned, programmed, -literally- by our given culture since childhood. As a result, and as Anais Nin said, we don’t see things AS they are, we see things as WE are -and who are we really? Are we willing to take the proverbial red pill to find out or remain -as we are- prisoners of our cultural conditioning?

    When Iva said that

    “These are the situations that momentarily lift the veil that helps us not to think about existential givens in everyday life, and we are forced to think about them. We start pondering our very existence and its basic questions: meaning, death, anxiety, loneliness. The fact that this kind of crisis brings us closer to inspection of existential givens means that it also presents an opportunity for discovering the uniqueness of our existence”

    True, but unfortunately, many people who experience all manner of suffering are too afraid to look within. They would rather die than find the underlying cause of their neurotic suffering and end this compulsion to repeat it. I believe that learning HOW to suffer legitimately requires extreme humility and the courage to accept the truth about ourselves no matter how we may feel of the outcome. But it’s only when we are in great danger as we see with Covid -19 that many people will question their mortality. Even so, this questioning is no guarantee it will dispel their neurotic suffering since legitimate suffering is not easy to achieve.

    It requires rigorous self awareness, humility, and the courage to accept the truth that we are living in an often sick society that got us sick since childhood by believing in things that are not true. These misguided beliefs whether religious, political, or cultural, go against our capacity towards self realization. We are instead, plugged into this sick society a la Matrix and we don’t know it. When we realize we are not who we are and want to know the truth about ourselves and the world we live in the awakening can begin. We must regard the search for truth as
    a supreme concern- as if our live depend on it. Because it does!

    • I like this a lot.

      I’m just wondering if I can be neurotic and in self awareness? Am I allowed both? Can I just be aware that I am neurotic and leave it at that? Can we just be good enough to know that the lens we see through is to be trusted and questioned at the same time?
      Sometimes it might be okay to just leave that neurotic streak that has a function 🙂

      • I should have defined what being a neurotic is. I’m following Dr. Karen Horney’s definition of it. Here is an overview

        https://www.verywellmind.com/horneys-list-of-neurotic-needs-2795949

        Sure, you can be aware of your neurotic tendencies and if you want to keep them that’s Ok too. However, and if self realization means anything to you, holding on to your neurotic ways would defeat the purpose of self realization. As Dr. Horney said

        “A better possibility of dealing with destructive forces in ourselves is that of outgrowing them. The way toward this goal is an ever increasing awareness and understanding of ourselves. Self knowledge, then, is not an aim in itself, but a means of liberating the forces of spontaneous growth”

        Elsewhere she says,

        “To the extent that we take our growth seriously, it will be because of our own desire to do so. And as we lose the neurotic obsession with self, as we become free to grow ourselves, we also free ourselves to love and feel concern for other people. At any rate, whether for ourselves or for others, the ideal is the liberation and cultivation of the forces which lead to self realization”

        I regard Dr. Horney (pronounced horn-eye) as one of the most brilliant humanistic psychoanalyst that ever lived.

        • There is always the danger of buying into concepts. Therapists never warn of navel gazing and shrinks never warn of belief systems. WELL, A shrink wants you to believe what he professes to believe.

          But yes, some wise sages among us, like Horney. I believe each one of us is unique and there are as many ways to live.

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