Finding meaning within suffering

David Hayward, 12th Sep 2016 no comments

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a holocaust survivor. David Hayward explains how Frankl found the strength to live and find meaning within his own suffering.


Meaning gives us a reason to live

Viktor Frankl, in his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, shares about a time he was participating in a group therapy session compiled of a variety of people who were experiencing a variety of sufferings.  Frankl’s belief is that it is meaning that gives one a reason to live. The human is not given a passion for life by simply self-actualizing, but by self-transcending. We need to reach into our deepest resource, which is our untapped potential, to live a life of joy, passion and meaning.

During this session, the meaninglessness of suffering arose. Frankl’s own life provides an example of how his life had meaning. When he was arrested and taken to a prison camp, statistically he had a one out of twenty-eight chance of survival.  He had hidden in his coat the manuscript for his book he was writing. When this was confiscated, he lost all hope. Eventually, he realized that he simply must write this book, so he scribbled notes on anything he could find. It was his sense of mission to write this book that he believes kept him alive.

In this way, he didn’t find meaning in the suffering. But he found meaning in the midst of his suffering. The suffering itself didn’t have meaning that he could perceive. But he found a meaning for living while he endured unbearable suffering in such places as Auschwitz. He noted that it was those who had a reason to live that had a far better chance of survival. It wasn’t that they had a reason to suffer that they could understand, but that they had a reason to endure the suffering.

Could there be an answer?

So he gave a question in a story as an example to the therapy group. I quote:

The question was whether an ape that was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; for with its limited intelligence it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: ‘And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension possible, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?’

Keep in mind that although Frankl believed in human spirituality, he was not religious. He believed in a transcendence that is within us all, and personal.

I think that it is important for us in our time of spiritual evolution, during our season of letting go of negative and harmful beliefs, of divesting ourselves of harmful behaviors and toxic people, of no longer taking upon ourselves unnecessary suffering just because it is expected of us, that we remember that even though we may not find meaning in the suffering, we can hopefully find meaning in the midst of it.

David Hayward is founder of The Lasting Supper, a non-confrontational community for people who want to be spiritually independent and free. 

You can also find out about his work as a pastor and artist at

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