The Courage to Suffer: Viktor Frankl’s Formula for a Meaningful Life

Viktor Frankl, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, was born 119 years ago on the 26th of March. In his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he offers his stakes on this simple truth: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Frankl married his wife, Tilly Grosser, in 1941.

A year later, they were arrested by Nazi officers and transported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia and were eventually separated. When Frankl recounts the gruesome events that transpired in the concentration camps, he illustrates how it was his feelings for Tilly that gave his life some semblance of meaning.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife,” he professes.

Frankl found his secret bliss in contemplating her countenance, retracing his steps from the biting cold and darkness of the trenches back to her smile. To him, love was “the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire,” the last unassailable refuge for those stripped and left with nothing.

Viktor Frankl would live to see the end of the Holocaust and would later discover Tilly’s name in a list of people who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Frankl marries Tilly Grosser

All of his immediate family, except for his sister, had perished or were killed in the camps. The initial shock brought on by the magnitude of his loss is detailed in a letter written by Frankl after the liberation, “In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point—and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived…”

Anguished and alone, Frankl threw himself into the completion of his manuscript. Almost a century later, his life’s work endures.

Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of the most influential books in humanity’s shared history. In its pages, a truth we instinctively grasp and grapple with as a collective continues to reverberate.

Frankl’s formula for finding the meaning behind our waking days withstands the test of time.

Ingredient #1: Engage in meaningful work.

The average person spends approximately 90,000 hours at work.

That’s a rough estimate of 10 to 13 years or one-third of a person’s life, making the perennial debate as to whether you need to find a job that you actually love a necessary one.

Work shapes most of our adult life.

Going to Work by L S Lowry

If I am only going to be alive on this earth for a limited time, I would like to spend a third of it doing something I care about. However, “meaningful work” isn’t limited to the context of a job, although it is blissfully possible for the two to overlap.

This is what Viktor Frankl emphasizes in his book.

The word “work” derives its principles from the Greek εργον, which leans closer towards the definition of accomplishment—something born out of man’s noble and rigorous application. It makes a case for the long-forgotten notion that there is plenty of magic and purpose to be found in the small, unannounced labors.

In one of Joseph Fasano’s poems, he offers his generous eye to the dreaded, tedious aspects of work that we often itch to escape:

But what are you trying
to be free of?
The living? The miraculous
task of it?
Love is for the ones who love the work.

Hobbies, personal pursuits, or creative labors can constitute meaningful work. How we relate to our colleagues and those around us can constitute meaningful work.

When we intentionally cultivate fulfillment and purpose in our daily lives, we are prompted to take an introspective look at our values, hopes, and beliefs and how they align with our goals. Do the things we engage with on a day-to-day basis take away or add life to our lives?

Does it propel us into a future we would like to live in?

Ingredient #2: Love deeply.

Love is a recurring theme with us humans.

It is ever-present in the tongue of poetry as it is in our throwaway conversations. We live in a time where there is nothing so ridiculous and cheesy yet simultaneously sublime and sacrosanct as love.

Despite the cultural shift in our attitude towards relationships, it remains clear as day that love is the engine that drives meaning in our lives. It pushes us to strive for something beyond ourselves.

So close, yet so far by Anju Shah

According to Frankl, love is the only way to grasp another human being in their innermost core.

The Zulu people have a way of greeting each other that captures the essence of Frankl’s belief in such a short exchange. In lieu of hello, they say, “Sawubona,” which roughly translates to, “I see you with my heart. I see the whole of you—your experiences, your passions, your pain, your strengths and weaknesses, and your future. You are valuable to me.” 

The other person would respond with “Shiboka,” meaning “I exist for you.”

To love and experience another person then becomes a way of seeing and, in return, a way of being seen. The second ingredient to Frankl’s formula for a meaningful life reinforces the duality of our humanness. According to him, “[W]e can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings,remembering, therefore, our dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good.

The love that Frankl writes about isn’t bound by physicality or mired by the desire to possess. This love frees us and sets us on a path to becoming our best selves. It rises from the Love we seldom acknowledge but from whom all creation flows.

To love deeply, we must borrow from W.H. Auden’s brief and timeless instruction:

If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.

Ingredient #3: Have the courage to suffer.

We cannot avoid suffering in this life. All the grief and pain is entwined with the possibilities of joy. In the face of unavoidable suffering, Frankl doesn’t prescribe hackneyed one-liners.

Instead, he urges us “to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best,” which is found in the ability to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. However, he reminds readers that suffering is not necessary for growth—only that meaning is possible in spite of it.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,” writes Frankl, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Look inside by Alisa Knatko

Viktor Frankl was a remarkable man who, in the face of humanity’s most horrifying moral failure yet, found a way through the labyrinth of suffering and, in doing so, paved a path for posterity to navigate the dark trenches of life.

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