Suffering without flinching

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, also wrote a book titled The Doctor and the Soul. In the introduction, Frankl argues that life has meaning as long as we have the capacity to suffer: “For the possibility of realizing values by the very attitude with which we face our unchangeable suffering—this possibility exists to the very last moment. […] The right kind of suffering—facing your fate without flinching—is the highest achievement that has been granted to man.”

He then proceeds to offer this illustration: 

A nurse in my department suffered from a tumour which proved to be inoperable. In her despair the nurse asked me to visit her. Our conversation revealed that the cause of her despair was not so much her illness in itself as her incapacity to work. She had loved her profession above all else, and now she could no longer follow it. What should I say? Her situation was really hopeless; nevertheless, I tried to explain to her that to work eight or ten hours per day is no great thing—many people can do that. But to be as eager to work as she was, and so incapable of work, and yet not to despair—that would be an achievement few could attain. And then I asked her: “Are you not being unfair to all those thousands of sick people to whom you have dedicated your life; are you not being unfair to act now as if the life of an incurable invalid were without meaning? If you behave as if the meaning of our life consisted in being able to work so many hours a day, you take away from all sick people the right to live and the justification for their existence.” 

Circumstances, environment do not make man and, as Frankl insists, in the concentration camps we saw how, “faced with the identical situation, one man degenerated while another attained virtual saintliness.”

Finally, Frankl also suggests, “In the last resort, man should not ask ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ but should realize that he himself is being questioned. Life is putting its problems to him, and it is up to him to respond to these questions by being responsible; he can only answer to life by answering for his life.”

It’s edifying to contemplate the achievement of suffering—whether big things or small things—without flinching. May we respond to all the questions life puts to us with the noble resolve befitting human beings who have been educated “toward the ability to decide.”


Published by Amanda Achtman

What matters to me is living in truth, taking responsibility, creating value & cultivating community.

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