Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
In the previous post, “Viktor Frankl: The Search for Meaning Outlasts the Forces of Hate,” we examined Frankl’s insight: Even concentration camp inmates can find meaning in life through hopes for love and work and through suffering itself. That last way, “through suffering itself,” calls for deeper exploration.
Whenever we think of meaningful living, we look for outcomes. When we love, we want to see healing, pleasure, growth, children, care for the sick and declining. When we work, we want to see solved problems, profits, satisfied consumers, health, or wealth. When we suffer, we find consolation if the sacrifice benefits a cherished person or goal.
But in concentration camps, the labor, torment, and death served only the oppressors’ need to oppress. At the very least, it wasted the talents of musicians making bricks and entrepreneurs digging latrines. In every way, it wasted lives.
Such a sense of waste continues among the chronically ill, dying, unemployed, and victims of discrimination everywhere. It continues in more subtle ways among many who seem outwardly blessed but inwardly trapped in loneliness and loss of purpose.
Frankl implied that outcomes do not make meaning in suffering. This does not mean that goals did not matter to him; to the contrary, he believed that mental health requires striving for goals. But the meaning of life comes to us not through outcomes or smart answers. It comes when we listen to life itself and answer with deeds:
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.[i]
As a good doctor, Frankl saw suffering first as a problem to solve. But with every door locked, every treatment tried and failed, every resource exhausted or stripped away, suffering becomes the task life assigns, the vocation to which God calls us:
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.[ii]
Even in the best of times, outcomes only give our lives conditional purpose. Unshakable meaning derives from listening to life, dialoguing with God, and offering ourselves in ways that say yes. Whatever your fortunes or circumstances, examine your suffering, listen to life, and answer the call.
[i] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 98.
[ii] Ibid. 99.