Pain and suffering can provide us with profound lessons in life, if we let them.
Perhaps you have experienced hardship, trauma, or life-long grief. Maybe you feel relentless physical pain, or have little hope. Perhaps you feel the saturating desperation of poverty, lack of support, intense loneliness or feelings of unworthiness, and self-loathing.
Some may be fearful the past may predict the future, worrying that losses once experienced will repeat. Others may be tearful from isolation, helplessness and worry that leaves us feeling bleak. While life’s moments of emotional turmoil is impossible to prevent, transcending suffering becomes possible to circumvent.
No one person is immune from experiencing the human condition. “You see there is what I use to call when speaking to my students, is the tragic triad of human existence, consisting of: pain, death and guilt” (Frankl, 2011). ”Nobody is spared suffering from diseases, pain. No one of the human beings can escape death, finally. And there is no one who can keep himself free from guilt, it is not possible.”
Life has meaning under all conditions. "Despair is a mathematic equation” describes Frankl (2011).
“D=S-M. What does it mean? Despair is suffering without meaning. As long as an individual cannot find, cannot see any meaning in his or her despair, he or she will certainly be prone to despair and under certain conditions, to suicide. But at the moment if they can see a meaning in their suffering, they can mold it into an achievement, they can mold the predicament into an accomplishment on the human level. They can turn their tragedies into a personal triumph, but they must know, for what? What shall I do with it?”
When we search for meaning or apply a purpose to the pain, from anguish and suffering can come so much more than disdain. We can let pain define us, or we can define the moments, and overcome.
“Suffering is inherent to human experience and some types of suffering are beyond the purview of medicine” (Egnew, 2005). “Still, suffering can be transcended by accepting the necessity to suffer and by finding meaning in the threatening events.”
In a podcast with Brené Brown (2020), David Kessler spoke of the depth and agony of his grief when he lost his son: “How in our darkest moments do we find the light?”
Kessler described his agony, stating he was focused on breathing. “I tried to survive, it was so heartbreaking and still is…I was shocked the idea of meaning did not take away my pain, but it gave me a cushion I hadn’t thought of before.” Kessler continued, “It became a life raft for me.”
“As time went on, when I began to dance with the concept of acceptance,” Kessler continued (Brown, 2020). “I thought acceptance is not enough, I need to find meaning.” Kessler proceeded to write another book about grief, however this time, meaning was added as the “sixth stage of grief” in his book, Grief and Finding Meaning. He spoke in the podcast with Brown how writing the book helped him find meaning from his loss.
Frankl (1959) posited the moment suffering ends is the moment it finds meaning. Meaning does not take the heartache or horror away, but it can be a defining moment in the healing process.
When despair fills the air and life is a blur, meaning can bring focus again to life. It can help someone who is suffering continue the will to survive, re-learn to live, and even thrive.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. Teresa can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone (513) 206-3026, or by visiting www.jacobsoncounseling.org
Brown, B. (March 31, 2020). David Kessler and Brené on Grief and Finding Meaning. Retrieved from
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press. Boston.
Frankl, V. (October 28, 2011). Finding meaning in difficult times (Interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl).
Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlC2OdnhIiQ
Egnew, T.R. (2005). The meaning of healing: Transcending suffering. Annals of Family Medicine.
Retrieved from https://www.annfammed.org/content/annalsfm/3/3/255.full.pdf