Viktor Frankl on Reframing Suffering

A pervailing notion is that suffering and gratitude cannot co-exist. According to this way of thinking, gratefulness and suffering exist in a type of zero-sum relationship, so that once our sufferings reach a certain level of intensity it squeezes out any possibility of genuine gratitude.

Viktor Frankl

A book that debunks this notion is Viktor Frankl’s work Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944 because of his Jewish pedigree. After being released, Frankl described his three years in the concentration camps in Man’s Search For Meaning. The book does not make for comfortable reading since Frankl chronicles the torments of mind, body and spirit that he and the other prisoners had to endure. But what intrigued me was when Frankl eloquently described how suffering enabled him and the other prisoners to understand what was truly important in life, and thus to be grateful for things that the rest of us take for granted.

Frankl described how conditions of extreme deprivation and cruelty enabled the prisoners to attain incredibly high levels of gratitude for tiny things, such as a colorful sunset or memories of family and loved ones. “We were grateful for the smallest of mercies”, he recalled.

Despite the unimaginably difficult circumstances he had to endure, Frankl found that it was possible to reframe his suffering in positive terms even at the time. Not everyone could do this, for many prisoners lost hope and gave up on life; however for those who clung to their spiritual integrity, it was possible to realize high levels of spiritual freedom and purpose even in the midst of so much deprivation, darkness and death. “[O]ften it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself”, he wrote in his memoirs.

In one moving passage Frankl told of those who, though starving to death, chose to give their last bits of precious bread to help others, and thus to realize the ultimate sacrifice of choosing to take up one’s cross for the sake of another. Such prisoners were able to add a deeper meaning to what would otherwise be a hopeless and purposeless situation.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. …in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. …the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment afford him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by eternal forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

During his time in the death camps, Frankl saw that the ability to accept suffering with dignity and spiritual integrity, and the ability to find a higher meaning in and through the confusion and agony, could make the difference to whether a prisoner literally shriveled up and died, or whether he continued to live. For some, finding a higher meaning came in the choice to accept one’s suffering instead of escaping into a condition of numbness and passivity. For others, spiritual freedom came in their refusal to give up hope, even when the likelihood of ever surviving the war was very slim.

Frankl was able to later use these insights in his work as a psychotherapist. He taught his patients that each of us have the power to bring meaning and purpose to our lives by how we interpret the circumstances that confront us. The quality of our life depends, not on everything working out for us, but on our “will to meaning”—the determination to find meaning, purpose and significance in and through situations that might otherwise lead to hopelessness and depression.

When we suffer, will have a choice whether we will revolt against our circumstances, or whether to accept them and find ways to grow in and through our hardships. Revolting against our hardships can take the form of bitterness, or it can take the form of passivity and hopelessness. In both cases, it is a missed opportunity. The opportunity we miss is the chance to accept our suffering as opportunities for spiritual growth.

The psychologist M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) was right when he pointed out that sometimes this very act of accepting our sufferings has the potential to ease our burden, for it enables us to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us. In his book The Road Less Traveled, Peck pointed out that because life is basically difficult, the sooner we come to terms with this truth, the happier we will be.

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them…”

Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful. For once we have accepted that life is difficult and suffering is normal, we can begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in the concentration camp were able to do when they saw a sunset. This suggests not merely that gratitude and suffering can co-exist, but that without suffering it is hard to ever develop a disposition of true gratitude. When life is too easy, we take our blessings for granted; we cease to view the basic necessities of life—warmth, food, shelter and friends—as pure gift.

We see how different this is to the type of escapism that permeates so much self-help literature of the last thirty years (although to be fair, the self-help literature has recently started to become more substantive). In Man’s Search For Meaning we find that truly grateful people are able to put an accurate valuation on life’s evils as well as life’s blessings, and to move forward in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances through a moment-by-moment awareness of life’s higher purpose. How different this is from the type of escapism that tries to white-wash over life’s pain by saying “Everything is good, really.” When Viktor Frankl told about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, he accurately identified the depths of evil to which man had stooped. Yet he was also able to put an accurate valuation on what is good in life, and in so doing he came to understand that what is good is larger and more lasting than what is evil.

The escapist denies the reality of evil, while the grateful man acknowledges evil but rises above it. Thus, true gratefulness is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult, while framing that difficulty within an overall positive context.

Acknowledging that life is difficult shouldn’t be too hard to do, given the type of world we live in and the types of people we have to deal with every day. Yet this basic fact is often denied in the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel that has become so pervasive in Western culture (and Africa). At its worst, this false teaching asserts that Christians should never experience emotional pain or acknowledge suffering. Although this teaching may seem to have some overlap with what I have shared elsewhere about positive reframing, it is completely incompatible with a true spirit of gratefulness. To prove this we just need to look at the Psalms. Consider how many of the Psalms show that when we experience injustice, or when somebody hurts us, it is appropriate to feel upset and acknowledge our hurt even while framing these experiences in positive terms. Throughout so many of the Psalms we see appropriate expressions of loneliness and misery while these very emotions are situated within a context of total gratefulness to God. If you don’t believe me, try this little test: open up the Psalms in the first quarter of the book and start reading at random. Very quickly you’ll begin coming across chapters in which the first part of the Psalm is taken up with expressing pain, loneliness, hurt or confusion, while the second half of the same Psalm is concerned with positive re-framing through meditation on God’s love, promises and past mercies. If this teaches us anything, it is that someone who has learned to be grateful in all circumstances is able to experience the spiritual paradox of feeling pain and being grateful at the same time.

If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to find our Lord telling his listeners not to mourn. Instead He declared “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to read Christ telling us to expect all men to bless us, yet instead He declared “Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) Notice how Christ’s acknowledgement of evil deeds (reviling, persecution, saying all manner of evil) is compatible with His positive reframing (“Blessed are you”).

In the end, the prosperity gospel, like the Hallmark-feel-good-escapist-positive-thinking-self-helpism, tries to take a short-cut to true gratefulness. Anyone can adopt the type of pseudo-gratefulness that comes from denying the reality of our pain, suffering and vulnerability. When we adopt this standpoint of denial, no reframing is necessary because there is nothing wrong to begin with. The true test is whether we can remain grateful to God in the midst of acknowledging real pain.

Biblical writers like Saint Paul and Saint James told their readers to joy in their tribulations, not to deny that their tribulations are taking place. But neither are we to resign ourselves to suffering through passive resignation. As Alfred Plummer pointed out in his Commentary on James 1,

“This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude. The effort to be resigned, and to suffer without complaining, is not a very inspiring effort. Its tendency is towards depression. It does not lift us out of ourselves or above our tribulations.

On the contrary, it leads rather to self-contemplation and a brooding over miseries…. It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”

Further Reading