Winston Churchill once said “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Suffering is an inevitable part of life. On this, we know that Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and probably every religion would agree. Heck, any human being who has lived long enough to realize the disillusionment of a utopian universe, children sometimes even, can tell you that suffering is part of life. Philosophers, thinkers, leaders, and religious figures the world over through the history of recorded human history would argue that the most crucial task in human life is to create and experience happiness. I see two different ways, generally speaking, to find happiness. One way is to avoid suffering. This can be done through deep and meaningful connections with others, in finding a meaning and purpose for ones being, or through experiencing the joy and beauty of the world through art, nature, music, friendship, joy and more. The second way is to create happiness and meaning of life not through the avoidance of suffering but through suffering. It is on the second way to happiness that I wish to write about today.
Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that “in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.” I believe that most of us would prefer to experience happiness in the first manner of which I wrote earlier, that is to avoid suffering all together. But we all know at this point in our lives that sometimes, often times really, through no fault of our own that suffering is inevitable. We don’t get to choose if we come down with a crippling disease, if our dearly beloved spouse is taken from us too soon, or if, such as in the case of Dr. Frankl, that we are born an ethnic and religious minority that will go on to suffer the worst form of human hatred and aggression in the history of humanity. These situations all foster suffering, but we must persist nonetheless. I will quote JRR Tolkien’s fictional character, the Wizard Gandalf, who spoke to his friend Frodo, whom was at the time lamenting the burden of his quest. Frodo says he wishes this hadn’t happened in his time, Gandalf replied: “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” None of us can avoid suffering outright, and many of us sadly will deal with a great deal more of it than others. But all we can do is persist and carry on as best we are able, and the best way to do that is through the mind. This post will examine the type of mindsets that can create happiness and meaning through even the worst of times.
The ability to exist in a joyous, happy state without any worry of suffering may sound like the optimal type of existence but in reality, it is merely a fantasy. We know through our experience that suffering is a part of life. What if we could make a happy and joyous existence not merely in spite of suffering but through your suffering. Viktor Frankl said that man’s main concern was not the avoidance of pain but the search for meaning in his life. This was one of the basic tenants of logotherapy, a branch of psychotherapy created by Frankl himself. Frankl believed that to find meaning one could do so through work or creation (e.g. a vocation, a calling) by experiencing something (e.g. love, art, beauty), and lastly by our attitude towards suffering. We can use this inevitable suffering of life and use it to help us define our purpose. The endurance of suffering gives us a reason to be and can help us not just build character but discover strength and virtue within ourselves which we never knew we had.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task,” said Frankl. Thinking back to the Churchill quote with which I opened, we can begin to view inevitable suffering not as something to fear or avoid, for what good would such fears do towards something we can’t control, but something that we can meet head on with optimism and courage. Take the difficulty that life brings and use it to find meaning. Seneca the Stoic said: “the point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue to make adversities bearable.” Fellow stoic, Marcus Aurelius said “the obstacle is the way.” Of course, we don’t wish for suffering but we train ourselves to build the character and the fortitude to meet them and to persevere regardless. Without such troubles, how will we really know just what kind of person we are.
It is easy to preach kindness, compassion, and optimism when times are hard, but if we can roll with the tough punches that life throws at us and still find a way, then we come to realize just how meaningful our existence is. To quote Epictetus: “so, what should each of us say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline.” Epictetus welcomed adversity in his life. Rather than haplessly fleeing or cowering, he met it head on. These are the moments that define us and let us find meaning. We do our best to live properly but until we are tested we never get to truly know the depths of our own determination and character. Frankl stated that: “if, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” Choose the attitude of an optimist or a stoic. If you look at life’s challenges not with fear but with eagerness, eagerness to develop character, or reveal your strength to yourself, you will make the most of your life and find meaning in so doing and finding meaning in one’s life may be the ultimate attainment of happiness. So whenever you find yourself stuck with what feels like an immense burden, or impossible suffering, don’t wish for different times or lament your situation, this will get you nowhere. Recall the words of Gandalf, that all you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given. Face your fears and your suffering head on, welcome them, and use them to create opportunity. The opportunity to strengthen yourself, and the opportunity to find meaning in this thing called life.