In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you talk about finding meaning in suffering. You talk about growing beyond yourself. What does this mean?
When people find meaning in suffering they often develop a deeper sense of what it means to be a person. You may begin to see, for example, that your suffering has shown you that all people suffer, all people are emotionally wounded to one degree or another. You begin to realize that your suffering is making you a more sensitive person to other people. In other words, your world expands as you see humanity more deeply.
For additional information, see Finding Meaning in Suffering.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find meaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.
In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.
I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.
How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind up their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.
As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.
When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.
A close friend asked one of us yesterday, “What is a good heart?” We never had been asked this before. Our response is below. What is your response?
A good heart first has suffered. In the suffering, the person knows that all on this planet are subjected to suffering and so his heart is compassionate, patient, supportive, and loving as best he can in this fallen world. The good heart is forgiving, ever forgiving, vigilant in forgiving. The good heart tries to be in service to others. The good heart is no longer afraid of suffering and has joy because of the suffering, not in spite of it. Having suffered and having passed through suffering, the good heart dances. Others do not understand the good, joyous heart. Yet, the one with the good heart does not compromise the goodness and the joy. It is like a valuable gift received and she knows it.
Let us not allow one truth of forgiveness to obscure another of its truths.
One truth seems to be this: When we forgive, we often suffer. We bear pain on behalf of the one who hurt us, as one example of how we suffer as we forgive.
A second truth of forgiveness is this: As we forgive, we experience joy. We see this in our scientific studies, as people shed anxiety and anger and depression and become more hopeful.
Suffering and joy—-together. Enjoy the forgiveness journey.