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.
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.