I am not a medical expert of any kind, and this article must not be substituted for medical diagnosis. If you are struggling with depression, I highly suggest you seek a medical professional.
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Frankl and his entire family were arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There his father died of pneumonia and starvation during the first six months. And his brother and mother were killed in the Auschwitz camp.
Living in Theresienstadt was unfathomable. Conditions in those camps were beyond inhuman.
1500 captives were confined to a shed that could accommodate 200 at most. They were cold and hungry, with not enough room for everyone to squat on the ground.
One five-ounce piece of bread was the only food in four days. They were forced to work in ditches filled with faeces. Displaying even the slightest signs of disgust meant they’re going to be thrashed by rods the SS officials.
If a captive died inside a shed, they dragged him across the room, above a flight of stairs and finally threw him on to a pile of bodies like a rice bag for incineration.
Although in 1945, when the war was finally over, Viktor Frankl gathered himself and came back home with dreams of seeing his wife only to realize she was no more. It was the ultimate form of suffering and pain that a man could bear.
Fast forward a few years. Frankl resumed his profession of helping people deal with their trauma. He pioneered logotherapy and helped mentally challenged people overcome their obstacles.
In addition to this, he’s the author of over 30 books, popularly known for his book “Man’s Search For Meaning” which was written in just a short span of 9 days.
So what led this ordinary individual to overthrow enormous amounts of mental anguish and led him to live an honourable life?
Pain, Suffering and Post-traumatic Growth
Trauma is a disturbing experience that causes intense physical, psychological or emotional harm. The inability to cope with mental anguish caused by trauma results in PTSD. (Post-traumatic stress disorder)
According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD is not rare. About 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. 1
And trauma survivors have two ways paved in front of them,
- Succumb to the emotional distress that follows trauma and fall into a limbo of sadness and isolation, creating a lot of dysfunction. (very common)
- Use this as an opportunity to shape a new perspective firmer than your older ones.2
Frankl used suffering as an opportunity to shape a new perspective. He found meaning through suffering and advocated finding something good, even in trauma.
Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situationsViktor Frankl
That thin straw is hope. The hope that things will turn out to be better. It is this straw that prevents a man from becoming insane or dying.
One day the senior block warden(who was a captive himself) confided to Frankl that he had a dream. Dream of a voice offering him a wish. The warden wished to know the day of liberation to which it responded 13th march 1945.
The warden was full of hope, but nothing happened on 13th March. Devastated, he lost all hope. On March twenty-nine he suddenly became ill and died two days later due to typhus. It shows a strong relationship between the state of mind of a man and immunity.
But how did Frankl manage to get through his mental anguish?
He found meaning despite the worst of circumstances. And this leads us to the question,
How do we find meaning in our lives?
Meaning of life
We think of the meaning of life as some abstract one-liner that is supposed to pop-up out of nowhere. Travel all over the world, help people these are a few examples.
But the truth is, meaning changes from time to time. It is not an overstatement to say that the meaning of life changes from moment to moment. I do not suppose there is no meaning in the grander scheme of things.
Consider this analogy,
In a video game, the most important thing at any moment is to survive or do your best to get to number one. Skipping to the last level does not help you understand the underlying story, and every single level matters contributing to the whole gameplay experience.
That’s how the meaning of life works too. Every moment is a small thread of life that influences the bigger picture.
It is the same act of embracing suffering and pain at that moment that helped Frankl to push through.
I have a friend who is 20 years older than me who was raped three different times over the course of her life … I asked her how she recovered from them, how she continued having healthy sexual relationships with men. She told me that at a certain point we get to decide who it is we allow to influence us. She said “I could allow myself to be influenced by three men who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by Van Gogh. I chose Van Gogh.”Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
Unhealthy ways to cope with suffering in the world
We have been conditioned by our culture to think of unhappiness as a disease. And with the rise of social media, there is no stopping this. Everybody wants to be happy all the time flying on pink unicorns through chocolate land all the time.
Suppression of emotional turmoil creates more problems and intensifies it instead of solving them. And the happiness definition of our culture is not doing any good to traumatized people.
Now due to this societal pressure, not only is he unhappy. But he is also sad about not being happy. These are called meta-emotions. Having emotions about emotions.
And all this began with the unhealthy act of suppressing emotional strain.
Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame. Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.Mark Manson
The other common way we deal with agony is to ask ourselves the question,
What did I do to deserve this? Why me?
The truth is you did not do anything to deserve this. Life attacks us in mysterious ways when we do not expect it to. There is no logic or reasoning behind this.
It is like running a newsreel running over and over inside your mind which you have no control over. By the end of it, you are posed with the same question. And this loop of mental anguish repeats indefinitely.
Contemplating this question breeds psychological distress instead of helping us to overcome it. I know it is hard, but there is no way of moving forward with this in our mind.
Neither suppressing our pain nor questioning our actions helps us deal with our emotional strain. So what does?
Healthy ways to deal with pain and suffering
1. Talk to somebody about your pain – There is a lot of research to prove that speaking and writing about your negative experiences reduces your stress. 3
Call up a well-wisher, friend or family and talk to them about it. Cry your heart out if you feel like doing so.
It relieves you. Because suppressing emotional strain is like blowing air inside a balloon. At some point, it has to explode. This is what therapy is all about. You are paying a medical examiner to listen to your problems.
If you cannot find anyone to be a pillar of support, consider visiting a therapist.
2.Constructing a different narrative out of pain – What does not kill you makes you stronger is not 100% true. Surviving a traumatic experience does not make you stronger. It is your attitude towards it that matters. This is what Viktor Frankl meant by finding meaning through suffering. For example,
You are kicked out of your job. Within a few days, you are evicted out of your apartment. My question is, what are you going to do about it?
We cannot control what happens to us, but we are responsible for how we react to them.
Whining about your lost job isn’t going to get you a new one. Recognizing your flaws, working on them and applying for newer ones is one way out.
So try to find ways to solve your problems. If it is something which cannot be solved, embrace your pain and learn to live with it. I know it sounds harsh, but it is the only way out.
Once a severely depressed medical practitioner came to see Frankl, who lost his wife two years back. He loved her above all else. Frankl said only one thing,
“What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
To which the doctor replied, “For her, this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”
Frankl concluded by telling “You see doctor, such suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”
The doctor said no word to Frankl, shook his head and left his office. Once suffering finds meaning, it ceases to be suffering.
None of this is to suggest that getting over the death of the loved one is easy. Losing your loved one is gruesome and brutally painful. It’s just that finding meaning in suffering makes it a bit easier to deal with.
3.By creating a work or doing a deed – One of the reasons Frankl survived was his passionate desire to write Man’s search for meaning. This led him to survive the chaos of concentration camps. He was willing to withstand a great deal of emotional distress to get his work out.
Find your north star. It may be writing a book, seeing your child after war or receiving a medal of honour. Whatever it is close to your heart, hold on to it. The drive for accopmlishment may help you withstand your mental anguish. And when you achieve your goal, your sufferings will be reduced to dust.
How to help a friend/ family member dealing with trauma (especially death)
Up until this point we have talked about general pain, but this section is especially for helping people dealing with the loss of their loved ones.
Listen to them – We are willing to go to the greatest extent to help someone deal with their pain, but we are often baffled how. Listening to their problems is the best help you could ever offer.
When it comes to listening, there are a few things you should know,
Do not judge them, and at times they can emotionally outburst over you. Be patient, do not take it seriously as they have gone through a stressful experience and never ever force them into talking about the traumatic experience.
Do not try to provide solutions in the hopes of reassuring them. This does not help in any way. All they are looking for is a shoulder to lean on – be that person.
Do not use generic phrases like It is going to be Okay or look on the bright side. All they want is a person to listen to, not someone to console them. Your silence is helpful than your consolations.
Offer specific kinds of support rather than generic ones. Instead of telling – give me a call if you need anything, ask, can I help with the dishes or groceries tomorrow? As they are overwhelmed by sorrow, offering specific services can help them a lot.4
To wrap up
Think of suffering as something to get through, like work. Your perspective about it matters. Let us (according to the stoics)focus on what we can control and try to ignore the rest because that is the best thing we could do.
If you are in a great deal of pain, I hope this post helped you in some way.
It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to these questions, we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.Viktor Frankl5
- How Common is PTSD in Adults – … Going through trauma is not rare. About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives…
- How to Grow From Your Pain – An empathetic post about growing from your pain which influenced portions of this article.
- Why Talking About Our Problems Makes Us Feel Better – Read this article if you aren’t convinced yet.
- Trauma – helping family or friends – For a detailed explanation of helping people deal with trauma, read this guide
- This article is heavily influenced by the book – Man’s Search For Meaning