The Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself, a creature struggling to survive by eating itself and simultaneously creating its own suffering. Photo by JM Watson
I have been fascinated for some time by the ability of the human spirit to overcome suffering. People like Victor Frankl have suffered more than most of us ever will in our comfortable suburban ‘Hells’. He had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of Aryan in Germany. The Nazi’s would force him to abort his child with his wife. He would also lose his wife, parents and brother to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Despite this he survived the camps and continued with his life’s work as a psychologist. Developing and applying what he called Logotherapy. A psychological treatment which posited meaning as its central theme. Perhaps it’s a naive opinion but when a man like this has something to say, I think we should listen.
I won’t quote the entire book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. But If you haven’t read it I suggest you do so, like now! Ill distill out three quotes which stood out for me whilst lying in a hospital bed broken both physically and psychologically.
“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” Viktor Frankl
“There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.” Viktor Frankl
“There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” Viktor Frankl
Life is about meaning. Without meaning we are lost. It is the thing that sustains us a humans, not value, not power, not hedonism, but meaning. There are three main channels to find meaning in our lives: Love, Work and Suffering. The last is the only constant in our lives and as such the most important. There will always be suffering to overcome.
Suffering is the Substrate of Life
We say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think this is a poor attempt to hide the truth. Suffering is the only certainty. If you are born (and that is far from a certainty) you will suffer, it is unavoidable. Even those born in full health and with wealth of resource to spare will fall ill and die. That’s not accounting for their peculiar hardships that they may suffer. To disregard this truth is what the core of religion describes as the path to Hell.
I am not well schooled in Buddhism but I think that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are one of the best summaries of the fabric and meaning of life I have ever come across (believe me I’ve searched). The Four Noble Truths are:
- The Truth of Suffering
- The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
- The Truth of the End of Suffering
- The Truth of the Path That Leads to the End of Suffering
If we accept that: There is suffering. That it is essentially caused by Life or Being itself (to be specific, this differs from Buddhism a bit here but the idea is similar I think). That there is a way in which we can end that suffering without the cessation of Life or Being itself. Then the means by which we do so becomes the meaning in our lives.
Suffering is embedded in Life and transcending that suffering is the ultimate purpose of life. This is the fabric of Life, it is the substrate from which our conscious experience emerges.
The Last of my Freedoms
“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity…” Viktor Frankl
Lying broken in a hospital bed unable to climb, walk in the mountains with my dogs, feed myself, or even move without pain, I still had the freedom to choose. My love of life had been stolen from me by suffering. My passionate work to improve myself in the realm of rock climbing had been destroyed by suffering. But at least I still had suffering. Whilst reading Frankl’s words, I listened. As I had in ICU, I again chose to embrace that suffering, to find meaning. Before transferring to the rehab facility I did know how the journey upwards would go, but I took the first step in Vincent Pallotti Hospital. I laid down a foundational phrase which would help me rebuild my life in the dark times ahead.
When faced with Unavoidable Suffering, Suffer Bravely