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

In some of your books you say that Aristotle is the foundation for your work on forgiveness. Why bother with some old white guy when there are so many people who have discussed moral issues?

So, are you saying that age and skin color should be the primary basis for embracing ideas? Tell me, which other author has defined the concept of moral virtue as or more complexly than Aristotle? He tells that all moral virtues, and that would include what he calls magnanimity of heart (which would include forgiveness), is characterized by at least 7 characteristics: 1) It concerns the good toward others; 2) people are motivated to do the good (affective dimension); 3) people know it is good (the cognitive dimension); 4) the insight translates into behavior that is consistent with the motivation and the cognitive insight (the behavioral dimension); 5) people can strive for perfection of the virtue, but do not reach perfection; 6) there are individual differences among people in the understanding and expression of the virtue; and 7) people strive for consistency in how they express the virtue. Further, he challenges us to see the universal characteristics of each moral virtue (it’s essence) as we express the virtue differently across situations and cultures (it’s existence). And still further, he tells us that each moral virtue has a formal cause (what it is in its essence) and a final cause (each virtue points to certain outcomes). Who is more complete than this? Do you still think these are arbitrary thoughts by “some old white guy”? If so, produce another thinker who is deeper.

For additional information, see Why Forgiveness Is Not Only a Psychological Construct.

What is your deepest book for the general public?

I have three books for the general public: Forgiveness Is a Choice (2001), The Forgiving Life (2012), and 8 Keys to Forgiveness (2015). The deepest discussion of forgiveness is in The Forgiving Life. Why is that the case? I give what I call a Theory of Forgiveness in that book and the theory is based on agape love, or a concern for the other even when it is difficult to do so. Also in that book, I ask the person to take a life-inventory of all people who have been unjust to the readers so that they can, if they choose, forgive all who ever have hurt them.

For additional information, click on the blue links above.

Your critic has another issue on which I would like you to respond, please. He is a mental health professional who said this: One of his clients who was angry about her divorce sent a strong letter to her ex-husband asserting how unfair he was. This made her feel much better. There was no need for forgiveness. How would you respond?

The technique employed above is what we call catharsis, or “letting off steam.” Yes, this can help in the short-run. As you ask someone who just sent such a letter, you might get a report of feeling empowered or relieved. Yet, there is a 25-year longitudinal study by Judith Wallerstein who found that many people who felt unjustly treated in the divorce are still suffering from considerable anger 10 years after the divorce. In other words, the short-term catharsis may not last and may require a stronger approach to reduce unhealthy anger. Forgiveness may be more effective in the long-run, if the client willingly chooses forgives and is not pressured into it.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

Abortion Survivor Forgives Her Mother and Father

Melissa Ohden’s mother was 19 years old, unmarried, and eight months pregnant in August 1977 when she went to a hospital in Iowa for the first step in what the medical profession calls a “hypertonic saline abortion.” Five days later, and unknown to her mother, Melissa was born alive and the staff left her to die in a pile of medical waste.

Melissa Ohden, abortion survivor.

Soon after the birth, however, another nurse entered the delivery room, heard a faint rustling noise, and discovered Melissa still alive. The nurse rushed Melissa to the neonatal intensive care unit where the 2 lb. 14 oz. child was treated for jaundice, respiratory distress, and seizures but miraculously survived.

Melissa was released from the hospital three months later to the care of a loving couple in a nearby community that adopted and raised her alongside their own children. Years later, when Melissa learned that she was adopted, she began a quest to find–and forgive–her parents.

After seventeen years of fruitless searching, Melissa was finally able to track down her father who did not respond to her queries prior to his death. Through her father’s relatives, however, she was able to get enough information to find her mother who had married another man. Her mother, who had no idea her daughter had survived the abortion attempt, said she had felt guilty every day since then about what she had done.

In an interview with the Daily Mail (a daily newspaper in London, UK), Melissa shared her incredible story and explained how she has forgiven her mother and father–as well as her grandmother who was apparently the major catalyst for the abortion. 

“It’s been a long and painful journey from shame and anger to faith and forgiveness. But I refuse to be poisoned by bitterness — that’s no way to live,” Melissa told the reporter. “Through my Catholic faith I have learned to forgive. It doesn’t make what happened okay, but it releases you from the pain. We are all human and we all make mistakes. I have only forgiveness in my heart. . .”

Melissa, now 42 years old, is married with two children of her own. She has a master’s degree in social work , is an accomplished motivational speaker, and has also started an organization called the Abortion Survivors Network. She wrote an engaging book about her life: You Carried Me: A Daughter’s Memoir, and is the subject of the 2011 award-winning documentary, A Voice for Life.

Is it possible for someone to actually improve in forgiveness? If so what do you suggest as some keys for me to do that?

Forgiveness is not a superficial action (such as saying, “It’s ok” when someone is unfair to you). Instead, it is a moral virtue, as is justice and kindness and love. Aristotle told us thousands of years ago that one challenge in life is to become more perfected in the virtues. In other words, we do grow more proficient in our understanding and expression of the virtues, but only if we practice them. It is a struggle to grow in any virtue, including forgiveness. So, first be aware that you can grow in this virtue. Then be willing to practice it, with the goal of maturing in love, which is what forgiveness is (loving those who are unkind to us). You need a strong will to keep persevering in the struggle to grow in forgiveness. In sum, you need: understanding of what forgiveness is, practice, a strong will, and keeping your eye fixed on the goal of improving in love a little more each day.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.