Reframing tragedy

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, explains how suffering enabled him and his fellow prisoners to understand what they valued most in life, and therefore were able to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness for those things that we so often take for granted.

Imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944 for his Jewish origins, this Austrian psychiatrist described his three years in the concentration camps following his release.  Frankl’s philosophy regarding suffering, outlined in his book, challenges the notion that we must do our best to avoid suffering, and, if we can’t, to get away or through it as quickly as possible.  Equally, we cannot be grateful for or when suffering – it is a condition to be escaped or ‘fixed’.

Frankl acknowledges the value of suffering through his belief that cultivating gratitude in the midst of tragedy can lend meaning to that very suffering.  The conditions of extreme cruelty and deprivation laid the foundation for creating understanding for what was really important in life – and therefore to be grateful for those things – often miniscule – we readily take for granted.

Frankl also reframed his suffering in positive terms through kindness to others.  He records how some prisoners, though starving to death, chose to give their last pieces of cherished bread to others.  These selfless prisoners were the ones able to add deeper significance to an apparently hopeless and purposeless circumstance.

Not all prisoners were able to do this.

In an extract from his book, we find the secret: “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.”

Finally, Frankl asserts that it is those who held fast to their spiritual integrity were able to achieve spiritual freedom and purpose. “Often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation,” writes Frankl, “which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.”

Later, as a psychotherapist, Frankl taught his patients that quality of life depends, not on everything working out for us, or of escaping into a place of numbness and passivity, but in the determination to find purpose and meaning in and through difficult situations.  Acceptance of, not resistance to, life’s challenges is the way to gratitude and growth.

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