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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…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. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. 🙂

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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I have not had an easy life.

I lived through significant trauma in my adolescence. I had to deal with some serious shit. When I tell people the highlights of that part of my history, they don’t know what to say. It’s okay. I don’t know what to say either. I tend to downplay it, because sometimes it seems like the only redemptive part of the story is that I survived basically intact to tell it.

That kind of prolonged trauma reverberates through the years. I have made unfortunate choices based on the dysfunction I learned as a teenager. I have health problems now because of the stress of the past. My brain developed differently than it might otherwise have done, leaving me, for example, with the tendency of being hypervigilant. I have trouble convincing myself being hypervigilant isn’t a useful and basically good thing (it isn’t, it really isn’t, but it still seems so very practical).

I have had to teach myself what having a safe and happy and functional life looks like. And I have had to draw some hard lines I never wanted to draw and make some difficult choices I never wanted to make.

I am also incredibly fucking privileged.

I am a white, heterosexual, attractive, thin, intelligent woman. I was raised middle class in California in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world. I received a college education without accruing huge amounts of debt. I know how to speak, how to dress, how to behave in order to receive better treatment.

People are not randomly afraid of me. People are more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. People are more likely to assume positive things about me. People are more likely to return my smiles. People are more likely to give me opportunities. People are more likely to assume I’m competent and that my work will be good. People are more likely to offer me assistance. I have access to better medical care, to better dental care, to resources that mean I have a lot more choices and control of my life.

I am oozing in privilege.

I have had a hard life.

These two statements are not incompatible.

What I see so often in conversations about privilege is this insistence on “I.” We all want empathy. We all want to be heard and recognized. We all want acknowledgment of our suffering. And, you know, Buddha said life is suffering, and there’s more than enough of it to go around.

This desire for empathy is normal. It is supremely human. And we all deserve it.

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

But. It is possible to receive empathy and give empathy to ourselves while also recognizing our privilege. It is possible to gently remind ourselves that actually, not everything is about us and our particular concerns. That our pain and our problems do not always need to get time in the spotlight, that sometimes other people’s problems and pain needs the exposure, the airtime, the discussion, the push for change, more. That injustice, oppression, lack of privilege, these are systemic issues that are woven into the very fabric of our society, and changing these things, it is a long slow painful process that necessarily shifts the focus from individual problems to societal problems. That even if we have valid points, if part of the purpose or result of those valid points is to shift the focus back to us, that is not always a net win.

I have had a hard life.

I am extremely privileged.

These statements are both true.

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Even when the blackness of night envelops us, we look for specks of light in the sky. We call them stars.

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Most of us live so very much in our own heads. We impose our internal reality on external reality. Thus it becomes of critical importance to be able to differentiate what comes from ourselves from what comes from others.

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All beings suffer. Comparing this suffering is a fool’s game. We do it anyway.

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With true self respect comes an unwillingness to play a supporting role in someone else’s story. Especially a supporting role that makes us smaller than we actually are.

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We are all awash in stories. When we believe in a story hard enough, it becomes true to us, even when this is a story that doesn’t need to be true and will act to hold us back.

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It is easier to dwell on differences, but we are also all the same.

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We cannot fix another person. Most often we can merely be present, and then only if we are allowed, with grace, to do so.

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Remember the stars. Hope matters.

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A Happy Life:

I have few or no worries and low stress. I am healthy and pain-free. I don’t have to deal with change very often. I spend time doing pleasant activities: reading books, playing games, watching movies, eating good food, making music, doing fun work, hanging out with friends. I go on fun outings on the weekends. I have enough money to do what I want to do.

A Meaningful Life:

I don’t walk away from something only because it is difficult. I embrace change when it is necessary. I enjoy challenges. I prioritize time for the things that matter to me: building close connections with others, helping others, working towards artistic mastery, creating things, doing work I’m invested in, learning more about the world and about myself, feeling gratitude and appreciation for the little things, evoking emotions and uncovering truth. While I still search for a balance in order to take care of myself, I make trade-offs in order to live in line with my priorities.

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I don’t think these two lives are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes come into conflict with each other. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that the happy life, while sometimes tempting, also sounds…empty. I’d enjoy it for a while, sure, but if that was all there was for me, I’d get restless.

When I think back on my life so far, what gives me the most personal satisfaction are not the pleasant activities I’ve done. I can hardly remember most of them. Most of the things I’m actively glad I did were challenging and not always comfortable. I’m glad I moved to London for a year. I’m glad I studied music. I’m glad I got to travel. I’m glad for the relationships I formed, with students, family, friends, romantic partners. I’m glad I taught. I’m glad I wrote a musical, and short stories, and novels. I’m glad I got a dog. None of those things were easy, and none of them were unadulterated happiness (although the dog was close!). But they are what matter to me.

I was struck by something in the Atlantic article “There’s more to life than being happy:”

“Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.”

Now there’s a silver lining if ever I’ve heard one. Right after reading the above article, I happened across my friend Myke Cole’s essay on PTSD, and he also talks about finding meaning in the face of adversity:

“We have to find a way to construct significance, to help a changed person forge a path in a world that hasn’t changed along with them.”

This is how we move forward in the world, through the meaning we create, through the choices we make. The more I think about this idea, the more clarity I find. Buddhism talks a lot about the inevitability of suffering. But the suffering can give birth to meaning, and that meaning? It’s a truly beautiful thing.

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Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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A few weeks ago I got to have a conversation with a respected Buddhist teacher. I asked him if it ever got discouraging, working with people who are stuck in one place and seemingly unable to dislodge themselves. And I’ve been thinking about his answer ever since.

People change when they want to change, he told me. And if they don’t want to change, there’s nothing else to be done. Even when they do want change, the process is difficult and sometimes the desire alone is not enough. And sometimes people are so caught up in their own stories that they really don’t want to change. They’re comfortable in their suffering.

I know exactly what he meant, because I’ve been comfortable in my suffering in the past. It’s a strange way to think about things because of course, being comfortable in suffering is often vastly uncomfortable. The key is in its relativity: that however uncomfortable the suffering might be, it is less uncomfortable than the alternative. It is less uncomfortable than the prospect of what change might mean.

Photo by Graham.

However, it is not only fear of change that is a driver here. It is also an inability to imagine anything different. It’s so easy for us to become caught up in our worldviews to the point that we don’t remember that other worldviews even exist, much less have the possibility of being equally valid. It’s easy to become blinded to anything outside of our experience. It can be easy to expect the worst, and by expecting it, summon it into our lives. (And we might not even realize we’re doing this, because it might not feel like expecting the worst; it might simply feel like maintaining the status quo.)

We act based on what we know. So when we wish to change, we often must change not only what we are doing but also what we believe to be true. We must question what we believe to be within the range of possibilities for ourselves.

I believe in our capacity to change with an almost desperate fierceness. I have to believe in it that way because I’m right in the middle of it, and it’s hard, and I don’t want to falter in my resolve. I often feel like I’m working five times as hard as usual. This process rinses and repeats, often from the tiniest stimulus: how do I feel? where is that feeling coming from? is there a way I can think about this differently? is this part of the new me or the old me, the new world view or the old one? if it’s the old one, can I let it go? how can I use this to open more to the world?

It is quiet work. For the most part, the outside world remains unaware that it is happening. Sometimes a friend offers me a helpful hand. Sometimes that help is a distraction, the space to laugh at it all, or just the reminder, “Take some downtime, Amy.” Because while it may be quiet work, it is also tiring, making myself new.

But I’ll let you in on a secret. My imagination is working, and I can picture it now: where I want to go. Where I am going. And who I’m going to be. There was always that part of me imagining what I secretly wanted but thought could never happen. Only now I believe in it. That belief makes it almost close enough to touch. (Maybe I’m already touching.)

Whatever it is I’m doing, it’s no longer a comfortable suffering. Instead it’s something that reminds me what it feels like to be alive.

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All people are the same, and all people are different.

I think sometimes we tend to get into trouble when we forget one (or both) of these statements. Holding both of these ideas in mind at the same time definitely exercises our ability to doublethink, but they are not as mutually exclusive as they might first sound.

Photo by Leo Reynolds

All people are the same.

We are born, we grow older, we die. We get hungry, tired, hot and cold. We feel pain, both physical and emotional.

We want. We want to be loved, we want to obtain safety. We want to stop feeling scared and uncomfortable. We want meaning, whether that be through myth, religion, stories, or science. (Or all of the above.) Some of us want stuff, some of us want intangibles, but most of us want something. And what we think we want and what we actually want is only sometimes the same.

All people are different.

We come from different backgrounds, geographical locations, religious beliefs. We have different bodies, different skin colors, different hair, and different health problems. We have different eccentricities, idiosyncracies, passions, likes and dislikes, loves and hates. We’re skilled and unskilled at different things. Our brains don’t all work exactly the same way either.

We have different memories, even of the same event. We have different ways of communicating. We have different opinions, different eating habits, different ways of conducting relationships. We have different needs and different desires and different ways of expressing ourselves. We have different tastes in style and pets and child-rearing and financial management and music and transportation.

We have different stories, different baggage, and different wounds. All of which lead to different life choices, some of which work for us and some of which don’t.

We are simultaneously the same and different.

When we forget we are the same, we may feel alienated or isolated. We may turn another person or group of people into the Other. We may think we’re better than everyone else, or that we’re not worth the air we’re breathing.

When we forget we are different, we may impose our own life choices on other people. We may become visibly judgmental. We may make inaccurate assumptions and stifle other people’s voices. We may forget there are other points of view.

There is a universality to the human experience, but the details are always different–sometimes very different and sometimes only a little different. We try to understand each other with mixed success. And we forget the following important truth.

You are not me. But we are both human together.

 

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