Finding Meaning in Suffering: I Am Someone Who Can Love Despite Hardship

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find Holocaust survivors found meaning in their sufferingmeaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.

In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.

I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.

How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind To live is to suffer, to survive, is to fin meaning in the suffering. Viktor E. Franklup their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.

As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.

When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.

Robert

What Is a Good Heart?

A close friend asked one of us yesterday, “What is a good heart?” We never had been asked this before. Our response is below. What is your response?

A good heart first has suffered. In the suffering, the person knows that all on this planet are subjected to suffering and so his heart is compassionate, patient, supportive, and loving as best he can in this fallen world. The good heart is forgiving, ever forgiving, vigilant in forgiving. The good heart tries to be in service to others. The good heart is no longer afraid of suffering and has joy because of the suffering, not in spite of it. Having suffered and having passed through suffering, the good heart dances. Others do not understand the good, joyous heart. Yet, the one with the good heart does not compromise the goodness and the joy. It is like a valuable gift received and she knows it.

Robert

Does forgiveness work with those who are addicted to drugs?

Yes, and we have a randomized experimental and control study to show this. We did two sessions a week with the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, for 6 weeks. After the forgiveness sessions, the participants went from clinically depressed to non-depressed. In contrast, those in the drug-treatment program as usual (the control group) went down in depression, but they remained clinically depressed. Here is the reference to that research:

Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.

I am working with clients who had alcoholic parents. These clients, now adults, tend to downplay the seriousness of their parents’ addiction. In other words, the clients tend to say this: “My parents simply did the best that they could.” There is an obvious denial of injustice by the parents. Here is the complication: The clients in so denying any wrongdoing by the parents are taking out their anger on their own children. What do you suggest I do to break this hurtful denial in my clients?

Denial can take time, but I find that emotional pain can break through the denial when you ask about that inner pain. So, to start, I suggest that you ask these questions of your clients: How are your children doing? Are they having any adjustment problems? What is the nature of these problems? Do you feel sad or frustrated or scared when you see the challenges in your children?

Give the clients a chance to see the children’s adjustment challenges and to assess their own (the clients’) pain regarding those challenges. Once the clients can see their own pain with regard to their own children’s struggles, now it is time to ask the clients: Are your children possibly inheriting your own discontent, anger, sadness, or other emotional challenges?

It is at this point that you can begin to explore the family-of-origin hurts that the clients had experienced. In summary, start with the clients’ children’s difficulties which likely are present. Then turn to how the clients’ own challenges are affecting their children. This can serve as motivation for the clients to see how they have inherited pain and now are passing this on to their own children. At this point, the clients may be open to forgiving their own parents.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

Is it truly forgiveness in its complete sense if the other does not want to reconcile?

True forgiveness (what this moral virtue is at its essence) is different from complete forgiveness (what the end point or goal of forgiveness is). Because forgiving is a moral virtue it is good in and of itself whether or not the other person responds favorably to your forgiving. Complete forgiveness occurs when the end point is reached. A major end point of forgiving is for the other to receive your gesture of good will, to have remorse, repentance, and if possible, recompense for the injustice. This, then, is followed by reconciliation. So, forgiving can take place in one individual as an unconditional outpouring of kindness, respect, generosity, and love toward the other. Complete forgiveness occurs when there is forgiving (on the part of the offended), receiving the forgiving (on the part of the one offending), and then reconciliation between the two.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

Which of your books do you recommend for a prison setting?

Two of my books have been used successfully in prisons: Forgiveness Is a Choice (2001) and 8 Keys to Forgiveness (2015). The latter book has a chapter on self-forgiveness which prison counselors tell me is important in this context.

Learn more at Shop: Books.

As I understand good psychotherapy, the counselor should not direct the client’s thinking but instead be non-directive as Carl Rogers explained. According to Rogers, the counselor should show “unconditional positive regard” to the client and be more of a mirror to the client, reflecting back what the client said. Clients then have the capacity to solve their own problems. Forgiveness therapy is too controlling when I look at Rogers’ advice to us. How do you respond?

Not all psychotherapy is non-directive. For example, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the mental health professional deliberately points out faults in a person’s thinking and challenges the client to reconsider certain thoughts to make them more adaptive for that client. In Forgiveness Therapy, people often need direction in thinking though a deep definition of what forgiveness is and is not. If we left it up to each client, how many do you think would find an effective pathway to forgiveness in a reasonable amount of time? If we have a scientifically-supported pathway of forgiveness, would it be a good or a bad idea to share this with the client? That road map to forgiveness can accomplish the goals of forgiveness (reduced resentment along with respect and even love for the offending person) in a much faster time than a non-directive approach is likely to do.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.