Existentialism: Finding Meaning in Suffering

What does suffering mean to you? For Viktor Frankl, and other unfortunate souls, it meant being imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. These camps were disgusting places full of torture, pain, and suffering. Chances of surviving were, at most, 1 in 28. Prisoners found themselves rejoicing at the sight of a few peas in an otherwise watery bowl of soup. If that’s the happiest part of someone’s day, it says a lot about how much their suffering. Prisoners often worried about the well-being of their family and friends who had been separated from them. It’s hard to even imagine the suffering that the prisoners went through. Amidst their suffering, many prisoners contemplated and many performed suicide by running into the electric fences. These prisoners ceased to have hope, they saw no future for themselves. They felt that their lives had became meaningless and they had lost the will to live. On the other hand, some prisoners, like Viktor, were able to find meaning in their suffering. In a world where people will commonly proclaim “why me” whenever something bad happens, I wanted to find out how someone could persevere through one of the darkest periods in humankind and find an answer to that question for themselves.


Essentialism


Prior to World War 2, essentialism was a fairly standard belief. This was the idea that we were born with an “essence”. An essence can be considered as a part of a person, or thing, that defines them. Without that defining quality, they would no longer be that thing. For example, the specific sperm and egg that made me are a part of my essence. If it were a different sperm, or a different egg, I would no longer be me. Some philosophers believe that as part of our essence we were born with a purpose. The atrocities witnessed during WW2 really made humanity question this. It’s understandable to question whether life really has a pre-destined meaning if all someone experiences is suffering. 


Existentialism


Post-WW2 the concept of existentialism became much more widespread. Existentialism is the idea that we are born without a purpose, and that we are left to define our own. This is often stated as: existence precedes essence. We are born first into a meaningless world, and then we define our own meaning. Some people think that existentialism is a depressing view of the world because it says that the world has no ultimate and objective  meaning. Others disagree. They may see it as a beautiful and liberating philosophy. One that allows them to find a potentially infinite amount of meaning in the world and gives them the freedom to define that for themselves. Every second, every minute, and every hour of every day they have the ability to define a new meaning for themselves. A new reason to live. 


Finding Meaning in a Concentration Camp


Existentialism was the key philosophy that allowed Viktor Frankl to find meaning in his suffering, during his time in concentration camps. To quote him, “when we are no longer able to change a situation - just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer - we are challenged to change ourselves.”  Existentialists have the ability to take an adversity and overcome it, or empower themselves, by giving it meaning. As circumstances change, they give themselves the freedom to change their meanings and attitude. They don’t ask life what its meaning is but they are constantly being asked by life. How they choose to live is their answer. 

Frankl argues that humans do not seek a tensionless state. In fact, a tensionless state can result in another problem that Viktor called the existential vacuum: a complete lack of purpose or meaninglessness in life. Viktor argues that it’s within this vacuum that depression, aggression, and addiction can arise. I believe Viktor would argue that in order to overcome this dilemma a certain amount of tension is required. But, this tension must be worth overcoming for the individual. So it’s not about avoiding suffering or stress at all costs but finding meaning in suffering or finding something worth suffering for. I think this quote by Viktor beautifully summarizes the key take away:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
— Viktor Frankl

Think of someone being cut off in rush hour traffic. In between the impulse, them being cut off, and their reaction there is a space. In this space they have the ability to choose their reaction to that impulse. In the same way, there is a space between our suffering and our reaction to it. We have the ability to choose our reaction and give new meaning to our suffering. In a way, we become worthy of our suffering.