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The Concept of Suffering in Viktor Frankl’s Book Man's Search for Meaning

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Human beings are no strangers to suffering, despite economic standing, good health, high intelligence, and a multitude of other positive traits, all humans have suffered in some regard. The presence of suffering in humanity leads to a string of obvious thought processes, one being: do humans suffer for a reason, must we suffer in order to gain some benefit in the end. In opposition to this line of thinking is the view that suffering is meaningless, humans suffer because of a bad situation, not for some higher benefit. The view that humans suffer for the greater good is often associated with a religious context. In opposition to this religious association of suffering is the scientific view of suffering, that there is no point to suffering. There is in fact value in suffering. suffering is a logical part of human existence. not everything can be as everyone always wants it to be, and as a result individuals suffer. There is no greater plan that humans need to suffer for, instead suffering is just a normal occurrence of human existence, however, this does not mean that there can’t be positive outcomes of suffering. Attitude plays an important part in finding value in suffering.

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Perhaps no one is able to quite understand what suffering is more so than an individual who has experienced incredibly tragic events. One such individual who fits this criterion is the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four concentration camps from the years 1942-1945. Frankl went on to found the theory of logotherapy, which claims that human nature is driven by the desire to find meaning. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl concludes that suffering serves the purpose as a conduit for human beings to find meaning. Sebastian Gab is able to offer insight from his article regarding suffering in Buddhism. According to Frankl, humans do not suffer for a particular reason, there is no religious reasoning for suffering instead suffering is just an aspect of human life. However, Frankl does not state that as a result religion is wrong, instead that suffering offers a platform to find meaning in life.

Many individuals have experienced great emotional pains as a result of suffering. According to Nicholas J. Carson, many of the patients studied were afraid of emotional difficulties arising from physical suffering. Many of the patients involved in this study feared “…losing their capacity to work, which affected their engagement…” (Carson 600). Many individuals fear the possibilities during times of great suffering. Often during these times individuals may turn towards religion in order to justify suffering. Carson doesn’t believe that any of these patients are suffering for any particular reason, merely because of the health issues present in the lives of these patients. It is also important to highlight suffering that manifests in ways other than physical. Sebastian Gab, a philosopher from the University of Trier highlights other forms of suffering, “suffering which manifests itself in emotional distress rather than physical pain” (346). A key takeaway here is that humans will always suffer, and the best way to counteract the negative aspects associated with suffering is to find a positive within the situation.

James Davies, a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom, gave several patient outcomes of suffering in the article Rationalization of Suffering. According to Davies’s accounts both patients who were suffering underwent transformations. One patient deciding that the religious viewpoint regarding suffering was entirely wrong, and there was not a greater purpose to suffer. While the other patient came to the conclusion that the religious take on suffering was not as true as was originally believed. Both these individuals have made a logical error, assuming that suffering is part of a great plan.

Many aspects of human life are filled with random occurrences, some of which may be associated with suffering. For example, if an individual contracts whooping cough after digging in the desert sand they suffer until they are healed. It is illogical to assume that individual contracted that disease because of a higher purpose. The individual contracted this disease at random, and as a result of whooping cough taking its course the human body suffers. While this individual may be miserable during this period of suffering it must occur while the body heals. Suffering is not for a greater purpose, nor is it meaningless, in this scenario suffering occurs as part of the healing process. The body utilizes suffering as a means to educate itself, to recognize certain dangerous situations and there-by be able to avoid hazardous situations in the future, as a means of self-preservation.

Emotional suffering follows the same path as physical suffering. An individual who is currently experiencing the loss of a loved one suffers not on a physical, but on an emotional level. In this situation the mourner suffers because of the physical loss of the loved one. There is no higher reasoning for the suffering the mourner feels. In this situation it is important to rationalize why the individual is suffering, thus finding meaning in a gravely negative situation. For example, a man suffers emotionally after the loss of his wife. The man is suffering because this individual loved his wife so immensely it is unbearable that she is gone, but the man can change his attitude towards the situation. Perhaps his wife was suffering from a horribly painful disease, for many months she was in excruciating pain. Given this situation the man can be happy that his beloved wife is finally at peace.

Take the case of Viktor Frankl, a man who survived an unspeakably atrocious event. Frankl and millions of others suffered both physically and emotionally. Frankl became one of the sole survivors of the Frankl lineage, the suffering Frankl faced for three years was incredibly difficult. Yet, Frankl was able to find a positive outlook based on the situation. Frankl was driven to survive in order to rewrite the theories that are now associated with Logostherapy. There is no way to justify, religiously or scientifically, the suffering faced by millions of Jews during the holocaust. The suffering faced by millions was because of the crazy ideology of a small group of people, human beings were to blame for what Frankl, and millions of others experienced. Just as many others do, Eben Alexander also believes there is meaning to be found in suffering.

Eben Alexannder is a neurosurgeon who had dedicated is life to science, and discounted religious or spiritual beliefs, “In short, I devoted myself to science.” (Alexander 8). As a medical professional Alexander would have believed along Freudian thoughts, that physical and emotional suffering was completely useless. However, Alexander changes his views following a near death experience, in which he experienced his brain shutting down. Following a near death experience Alexander finds a spiritual or religious realm to exist outside of human comprehension. Alexander found meaning from the suffering of said near death experience. According to an article titled Religious Finite Province of Meaning and Suffering individuals who are suffering and who are religious tend to fall back on prayer as a means to become closer to the religious deity for the purpose of healing. These individuals find believe the meaning of the suffering faced is to become closer to God. This is not the case. If the reason a person had to suffer was for that individual to become closer to God, through prayer then the ailment should be cleared once the individual does God’s will, but that is most often not the case. These individuals always suffer for other reasons.

There are several theories regarding the suffering of humanity, and many individuals believe that suffering is either meaningless, or we must suffer for some religious reasoning. Both these theories are wrong. It is true that there is no greater reason for suffering, human beings do not suffer because God wills it. On the other hand suffering is not meaningless. If suffering were just a random electrical response from the brain than love would also be meaningless by that logic. The thought that loving someone is merely the result of your brain receiving electrical signals from the eyes to the brain is preposterous. Instead, suffering is merely a natural outcome of life. If a deer lives in the forest and becomes trapped under a tree the deer suffers. Someone who comes along and finds the deer would simple assume that this was a freak accident, but a natural event. The tree fell down because of a strong wind, the deer merely managed to become trapped beneath the falling trunk. This scenario is treated as an accident, not a result of a greater plan. Replace the deer in this scenario with a human and the same holds true. In this new scenario the human being suffers under the tree. It is safe to assume that this human is trapped because the strong gust of wind knocked the tree over, there is no reason that the tree fell other than the wind. This scenario highlights an important aspect, the human suffers because of a random event, but this does not mean the suffering is meaningless. The human is capable of finding meaning as a result of this suffering. While trapped the individual finds something to motivate themselves to survive, something they always wanted, or always knew they would achieve. Viktor Frankl was able to motivate himself to survive through three years and four concentration camps during world war two. Suffering isn’t anything more than a part of human existence, and there certainly is meaning to be found in suffering.

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