By many measures, it’s an objectively shitty time to be a human. From a pandemic, to the climate crisis, to economic insecurity, there is no shortage of things to suffer in the world. Of course, there have been a lot of shitty times in human history—the Atlantic slave trade, smallpox in the Americas, and the two world wars all come to mind. And somehow men have emerged triumphant.
Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays amid periodic quarantines from the bubonic plague. Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-bedroom log cabin and had to suffer in poverty. Sammy Davis Jr. not only fought in WWII, but fought off racism from his fellow soldiers, saying “I must have had a knockdown, drag-out fight every two days.” All to say, some people can achieve greatness while experiencing immense suffering. What sets them apart? Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has a theory on it.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” – Viktor Frankl
Frankl didn’t just write about how he had to suffer — he lived it. In WWII, he was imprisoned in four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His mother, father and brother all died and he was separated from his wife and children. While enduring starvation and abuse, Frankl noticed that some of his fellow prisoners were more resilient than others. They had something that gave them the drive to survive. He realized that for him, imagining seeing his wife and children again gave him the will to continue on. It gave him meaning. Each suffering he endured brought him closer to the moment he would see them again.
After the war, Frankl tragically learned that his wife and children had died. He reflected that if he had learned this in the concentration camp, he wouldn’t have survived. Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning—a memoir of his experience—to share his philosophy with the world.
But how do you put this lesson into practice? How do you take a miserable life of constant suffering and make it meaningful?
The Tragic Triad
Frankl identified three tragedies that haunt all people: pain, guilt, and death. This triad is inescapable in life and something we all have to face. It’s the shit hand that we’re all dealt. And it’s critical to living with meaning. Here’s Frankl’s advice:
1. Turn pain into achievement and accomplishment.
One of the greatest mountain climbers of all time, Reinhold Messner, said “It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.” We might not all be wheezing hundreds of metres from the summit, but there is a meaning in persevering in the face of pain. What is the greatest pain you’ve ever overcome? Do you wish you’d never experienced it?
2. Use guilt to change your life for the better.
Your most profound guilt has a story to tell about the man you want to be. You can’t change the past, but you can use guilt to change the future.
While speaking to inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California, Frankl once said “You are human beings like me, and as such you are free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for the better.”
3. Knowing that life is fleeting, take responsible action.
Frankl lost his family to the gas chambers. He was acutely aware that life is short. His advice? “Live as if you are living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” In other words, your actions matter. They can have a positive impact on your family, friends, and community or they can be reckless and self-serving. The choice is yours.
The Pursuit of Meaning
Western culture is fixated on the “pursuit of happiness”. The problem is happiness is an emotion and therefore transient. It will come and go. Meaning, however, can never be taken away from you, even in the most extreme circumstances. It’s the ace that counters life’s shitty deal. And it’s yours to pursue as long as you can.