I have already written a post about the meaning of life, and I stand by my assertion that meaning is derived from our passionate emotions, but I have a read a bit more about it, and wish to delve deeper into the subject.

Victor Frankl is a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps. As a psychologist, he was able to use his time in various camps to make observations about the people he was surrounded by. His most important discovery was that those prisoners who had hope, who found meaning even among the horror that inundated them, were able to survive longer than those who gave in to despair. Frankl’s meaning came from the love of his wife, and that love nourished his spirit to overcome the crushing emptiness that threatened to engulf him at any moment.

One of the quotations from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reads that  “meaning is available in spite of – nay even through- suffering, provided … that the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.”

Frankl discusses a conversation he had with a journalist who tells him the story of a Jew who raised armed rebellion against his Nazi captors, calling him a hero, and Frankl tells the journalist that to pick up and shoot a weapon is no big act of courage, but that to hold one’s head high with dignity as one is marched into the gas chambers, that is heroic.

After having survived arguably one of the worst tortures that humanity has inflicted upon itself, Frankl came home to discover that his wife had not survived her own captivity. Many Jews were destroyed not just by the holocaust, but from escaping it only to realize that the hope they had clung to was only a fool’s hope, and the meaninglessness of their suffering came down upon them in full force.

Frankl endured this holocaust aftershock, though many didn’t, and went on to create something called Logotherapy: a method of therapy where an individual is helped find meaning in their life in order to alleviate even physical symptoms that nihilism can inflict on a human being. He theorizes that there are three sources of meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) or in courage during difficult times.

This theory lines up almost perfectly with my own. The significance of the work must of course be significant to the individual, as someone might be able to find meaning just as much in delivering the newspaper as in organizing the events that would be written about in one. This would be derived from the passion they feel for their work. Not just love, as the activist would be driven by righteous indignation or the athlete by competitive determination, but by any emotion strong enough to make the work worthwhile.

Albert Camus’ Sisyphus conquers his trial by realizing that the meaninglessness of his endeavour can be overcome by owning it through powerful emotion, and continuing on. It is his spite for the gods that enables him to find meaning in his trivial task. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Why is it important to find meaning in suffering? Well, because life is full of it.

Arthur Schopenhauer suggests that all of life is built upon striving. We are continually moving towards something, and if we are not, we become bored. Because striving is based upon a lack, there is an inherently negative aspect of life that we must constantly deal with. Even happiness, Schopenhauer suggests, is based upon a lack being fulfilled (not a positive, but merely the nullification of a negative) and we experience a brief euphoria before inevitably returning to our natural state of striving for something new, or risk falling into boredom.

Or in Buddhism, it is suggested that all life is suffering because we are attached to ephemeral things, and so life is a series of losses of those things that we cling to.

Is meaning only available during those brief moments of happiness when our attachments are still with us, or we’ve achieved the thing that we were striving for? Is life going from one stepping stone to the next, the spaces in between being devoid of any value? Or do we give up our attachments, give up our goals, and become shells of human beings; serene, but empty?

Whether you agree that all of life is built upon suffering or not, it is undeniable that suffering plays a major role in human existence. Meaning in suffering is imperative because that is when we need it most. Meaning can be derived in the form of works; using the passionate emotion of suffering to construct or create, letting it drive us. Or using another of our passions to sustain us, to endure the hardship. Or simply to hold our heads high, and face our suffering with dignity.

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