Finding Meaning in Our Suffering
Let us start with the prophetic words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as he mourns the passing of Lady Macbeth in Act 5, Scene 5:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
There is no meaning in life and therefore there is no meaning in suffering. To live and to suffer are meaning-less. Yet, experience tells us that this kind of thinking is a dangerous illusion. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. have no meaning when he wrote his Letter from the Birmingham jail? Did Maximilian Kolbe see no meaning in life when he asked the Nazis to let him take the place of a condemned man who had a family? Whether one’s beliefs are in God or in random variations generated by mutations, we are either made for or have evolved toward finding meaning in our life. The skeptic would say that my point is a happy illusion: Yes, we need to believe this, but we do so just to stay alive; it is adaptive to think fairytale thoughts.
Yet, what else in nature can you identify that is so very important and at the same time is an illusion? I can think of nothing. If finding and having meaning is tied to our well-being, then there must be something to it. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz (which Maximilian Kolbe chose not to survive for a higher good of protecting another person), observed this: Only those who survived Auschwitz found meaning in the profound suffering endured there. Those who found meaninglessness died. Finding meaning in this case was tied to positive, concrete outcomes. There was a need (to find meaning) that was fulfilled (surviving and even thriving). Can you think of any other real need that is not tied to something real that can fulfill it? If not, then it seems reasonable to say that we have real needs with real fulfillments and finding meaning and achieving the state of thriving are concretely, really linked together without illusion.
When we are treated deeply unjustly by others, we suffer. If we have come, through wisdom, to know the meaning of life, then we will find meaning in our suffering. If we find meaning in both life and suffering, we have the foundation to forgive well and to survive well the cruelty against us.
Sound and fury, signifying nothing? Please be careful in so concluding.