The Good That Can Come From Suffering

The difficulties and hardships we encounter can create meaning and depth to our lives.

This excerpt first appeared in "After the Darkest Hour: How Suffering Begins the Journey to Wisdom." It is reprinted here with permission of Henry Holt & Company.

Real suffering is an authentic and realist response to the ragged wounds of living a human life. It's also unavoidable and an essential part of every human life. Illness, loss of loved ones, disappointment, decline, death, limitations, and imperfections startle and shake us. But they awaken us to find meaning, dignity, and significance in our lives. They open the heart to pure compassion and newfound creative energy.

Real suffering is useful. It propels us to new levels of consciousness and self-knowledge. It is through suffering and pain that we break down our habitual barriers between ourselves and others and allow for the entrance of a transpersonal, transcendent perspective: a full appreciation of our intimate and profound spiritual connections.

The pain that life will deliver...can wake us up and deliver us to a state of consciousness in which we can make each moment count and find meaning in our existence.

Jungian analyst and writer James Hollis writes that suffering is an essential requirement for psychological and spiritual maturation, for without it one would remain "unconscious, infantile, and dependent." The moments when we are stripped bare of our illusions and confront the realities of human existence introduce the most important questions we can ask ourselves: Who am I? What is my purpose here? Where do I find meaning in my life? What is my relationship to God or some higher, transpersonal power?

Jung saw the arrival of these questions as an important step in anyone's development. He believed they arose in light of the authentic suffering that he felt was essential to psychological health and the process of self-discovery he termed individuation. Instead of searching for happiness, he advised that people should instead search for meaning. He also understood that happiness is both an unattainable and incorrect goal because it will never last.

Jung wrote in his autobiography, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections": "The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time, one of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. If meaninglessness were absolutely preponderant, the meaningfulness of life would vanish to an increasing degree with each step in our development. But that is--or seems to me--not the case. Probably, as in all metaphysical questions, both are true: Life is--or has--meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and will the battle."

In contrast to real, authentic suffering, Jung held that another kind of suffering, neurotic suffering, offers no meaning. Jung called it an "unconscious fraud" and declared neurotic suffering to be bogus and with no moral merit. He saw neurotic suffering as a flight from the words of life and as an unconscious--and unsuccessful--attempt to heal them.

On the one hand, symptoms such as anxiety, worry, ruminations, low self-esteem, depression, projections of unconscious complexes onto other people, addictions, and a sackcloth-and-ashes kind of guilt that causes people never to feel worthy are all aspects of neurotic suffering. On the other hand, deep anguish about our ordinary human imperfections and limitations is a symptom of real suffering. The pain that life will deliver in the form of loss, illness, or death can wake us up and deliver us to a state of consciousness in which we can make each moment count and find meaning in our existence....

Neurotic suffering keeps pain going. While real suffering heals through mourning and meaning, neurotic suffering just rolls on and on and is self-imposed. It creates its own cycle of pain that is repetitive and endless, like a dog chasing its own tail. In "The Aion," Jung wrote: "It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the life of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going."

To Jung, neurosis "must be understood, ultimately, as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning."

To Jung, neurosis "must be understood, ultimately, as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning." Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl agrees. Frankl survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. His mother, father, brother, and wife did not; they died in the camps or the gas ovens. Except for Viktor and his sister, Stella, the entire family perished. In an instant, his whole former, comfortable life as a doctor encircled by a loving family vanished. His every possession was taken from him and he suffered from hunger, cold, and brutal beatings. For more than three years, death surrounded him at every moment like a filthy shroud.

Soon after entering the camps, Frankl realized that he had "nothing to lose but his ridiculously naked life." However, in spite of the pain and torture that he experienced, Frankl refused to relinquish his humanity, his love, or his sense of responsibility to bear witness to the world. In spite of the atrocities around him, he remained courageous and filled with hope. In choosing "to be worthy of suffering"--Dostoyevsky had once written--Frankl was able to rise above his outward fate, by making inner, conscious decisions about how he would respond to his circumstances.

In his remarkable little book, "Man's Search of Meaning," Frankl gives testimony to the existential belief that life is filled with suffering and that the only way to survive is to find meaning in it. "Once an individual's search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering," he wrote.

Although we cannot always change the fact that terrible things will happen to us, we have every power to change how we will respond to those painful events in our lives.

In his book, Frankl announces that he, himself, is filled with a "tragic optimism," a philosophy that allows him to say "yes" to life in spite of pain, suffering, and death. He has little patience with the nihilistic idea that being has no meaning and considers the common belief in that as a "mass neurosis." It is this philosophy, Frankl says, that served him in the camps and allowed him to maintain his dignity, grace, and compassion in spite of the unspeakable atrocities to which he was subjected. He holds that it is precisely man's search for meaning that is a primary motivation of our existence and one that gives us a reason to live in spite of life's tragedies.

To Frankl, meaning can be found in the fact that human beings are self-determining. Although we cannot always change the fact that terrible things will happen to us, we have every power to change how we will respond to those painful events in our lives. We do not simply exist but have the intrinsic authority--this "last of human freedoms"--to decide what our existence will be, what we will become in the next moment.

"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed," he wrote. "For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. 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." Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche, who said, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.
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Kathleen A. Brehony, Ph.D.
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