Friday, June 26, 2009

Meaning in Suffering?

I always try to do some "life philosophy" in my ethics classes: i.e. philosophical work that engages with questions about "the meaning of life." The reader I use has a nice sample from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses his situation in a Nazi concentration camp, amidst many people who had lost hope. Their lives seemed to have lost all meaning. One of Frankl's deepest questions is whether this showed that the Nazis had the power to make a person's life effectively meaningless. Frankl thinks the answer is no, and that the few examples of those who rose above the circumstances, in their charity to others, and other acts of courage (such as just the will to fight through the day), demonstrated that even those in the camp could continue to make something of their lives: they still had the capacity for choice, despite the most severe limitation of options.

Noting that suffering--to a greater or lesser degree--is an inevitability in any human life, he makes the (wild?) claim that, "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." I always ask my students what they think that means, and I must admit that I am deeply puzzled by one answer that I hear from many students, semester after semester. (I'm bringing all this up because I'm covering this excerpt tomorrow...)

This all-too-common answer is this: that suffering is meaningful because by suffering, we can better appreciate the good things in life. (So, it seems, suffering, on balance, can increase our overall happiness.) Basically, it seems to me that it's never occurred to students who give this answer what a horrible thing that would be to say to someone who survived a concentration camp, or any other terrible situation.

I recognize that this (terrible) answer is derivative of the idea that "you can't appreciate pleasure or happiness without also experiencing pain and unhappiness." I'm not, however, even sure that's true, but even if it is, the sort of suffering Frankl has in mind surely goes beyond any acquaintance we'd need with the unpleasant in order to appreciate its opposite. (And it's clearly true that, in large part, many people who survived the camps were utterly destroyed and permanently scarred by the suffering they endured: this is not a recipe for "appreciating the good things in life.")

Another mistake students seem to make is that they seem to confuse effort with suffering. They then seems to suggest that suffering can be rewarding because of the payoff at the end. But they're really talking about effort, not (the experience of) suffering. It may indeed require effort to endure unavoidable suffering, but effort can be expended on other things, too. (Does Albert Pujols suffer when he takes batting practice?)

I take it that Frankl's point is a bit more austere than the students want to recognize. As I read him, sometimes suffering is unavoidable, but if we have something to live for (or even the hope that if we make it, there will be something better to live for), then we can make the process of enduring what would otherwise seem pointless a meaningful activity or situation. That doesn't mean suffering is good. (So put your hairshirts away...) Frankl is trying to show how we can maintain our dignity, not providing a recipe for happiness.

(I end with this otherwise depressing piece because the upshot of Frankl's theory is that we have a responsibility to create (or find) meaning in our lives. And since many of us--including, I presume, those fortunate enough to go to college, etc.--aren't faced with a life of pure suffering, we owe it--both to ourselves and to those who don't have the same open range of possibilities--to make something good of our lives. Otherwise, why are we living? Maybe that's moralistic--and I don't take to moralizing in my ethics classes--but I can live with one exception on the last day...)


  1. A friend of mine sent this comment via Facebook (b/c she was having problems posting here):

    Matt, I often cite Helen Keller in coversations like this. Fact is, that the suffering endured in a concetration camp, is not your every day occurance. You cannot expect students to have this knowledge base, because nowadays the reality of most people is they think they are suffering if they haven't received a text message in the last 15 minutes or if their phone runs out of money before a recharge.

    I have just covered the topic of evil and suffering in my christian studies class - some very interesting ideas out there.

    Here are some Helen Keller quotations:

    "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."

    "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."

    " Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I am in, therin to be content "

    "Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world. "

    "We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world. "

    "Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings."

    Matt, I also use in conjunction with any teaching I have done on the holocaust, the great quotation from Miss Anne Frank, who symbolizes hope - “I don't think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains”

  2. Matthew,

    I hope you don't mind me reposting part of a quote from D. T. Suzuki that I posted on your happiness blog a few days back as I think it affirms your friends quote from Helen Keller.

    "Happiness means that there is something which is not quite conducive to happiness, i.e., happiness always comes along with unhappiness. It is relative. We crave for happiness, but when we have it we are not satisfied with it, and we find that happiness is not so happy after all; and then we think of something happier. That is what drives us all the time. Therefore, if Paradise materialized we should be at a loss what to do. We should suffer from ennui and would like to go back to Hell! Hell is more interesting, as there is always a certain stimulation because although we suffer pain we want to get rid of it. But if everything went on nicely, what is the use of living? So life always means stimulation; pain is most necess­ary."

    Even though pain and suffering are not inherently good in themselves, this does not mean that they cannot contribute to the greater good of the person. This greater good of the person, whenever it is related to the most hideous of actions by man will or should always be in the being mode and not the having mode of experience / existence.

    If one needs evidence of man suffering in the being mode, he only needs to look at Buddha, Socrates and Jesus.

    Man's ability or inability to act in such a way in extreme circumstances is not mainly due to a lack of courage but a lack of love

  3. I think perhaps there may be one thing that most men of good will can agree on as it is related to happiness.

    The fragility or precariousness of happiness is in direct proportion to the egocentricity / self-centeredness of man.

    I believe the truth of this statement is intuitive to anyone who does not dismiss it outright before giving it some thought.

    If this is true then I think the following formula will hold true:

    Authentic Happiness = Love.

  4. Jack,

    I think what you said is more interesting than what Suzuki has to say--but maybe I read the quote too quickly: on the surface, it just looks like Schopenhauer (satisfaction of desires = boredom).

    At one point in the excerpt from Frankl in my class' ethics reader, he cites Rilke (with approval): "how much suffering there is to get through."

    I think this shows a deep difference in the perspective of Frankl and that of, say, Buddha. This came out in class on Friday. Frankl's suffering was much more visceral than the suffering of a rich boy seeing poor people for the first time. (I realize that's an oversimplification, but hear me out...) The point is that Frankl holds that some suffering in life may indeed be ineradicable, but that looks like a denial of the Third Noble Truth (that (all?) suffering can be brought to an end). Now maybe the way Frankl uses the term is slightly different from its use, say, in Buddhism, so that there is no essential disagreement. However, what I find striking in Frankl is that while he insists that one can (perhaps even must, in order to live) find a way to make one's own suffering meaningful, he is not offering anything like a justification of suffering. Perhaps that's compatible with what you say above (in your first set of comments).

    I think the ethically significant point is that whereas we are often best served by viewing our own sufferings as challenges to be overcome (a la Frankl), it would be wrong to respond to another person's sufferings in this way, rather than with compassion. (I guess that fits well enough with what you say about love?)