The Meaning of Suffering

By: Lara Hammock, MSW

“Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I must confess – I don’t really understand endurance athletes. Don’t get me wrong – I am properly impressed. I’m awed by the effort, tenacity, and grit that is required to train for and ultimately finish something like an Ironman race. But I have to say, I don’t really get it. Your body takes a beating, the training requires a huge amount of time from your life, and in the end – all you get is the satisfaction of knowing that you completed an outrageous physical feat. So, I guess maybe I can see doing that once? But committed endurance athletes do not just do it once. They do it over and over and over again. There is an almost addictive quality to it. 

My friend Alison is such an athlete. When Covid shut everything down two years ago, she endured the disappointment of major plans being canceled just like the rest of us. But one of her races kept getting rescheduled and then canceled and then rescheduled again – multiple times. Which is irritating for any event that requires planning, but when you have been training for XX months for an Ironman race just to have it postponed at the last minute, it is a special kind of anguish.

As we were talking about this latest disappointment, she announced that she was going to do it anyway. She was going to find a local place and she was hoping to get at least one friend to join her. I was dumbfounded. When I asked why she would do this, she responded, “There is something about feeling that degree of exhaustion and pain with other people that makes it meaningful.” And just like that, she answered a question that had been plaguing me for some time.

Victor Frankl wrote that there are three ways to find meaning in life. I have no difficulty in understanding the first two. The first way is through creating a work or doing a deed. This explains artists, writers, crafters, gardeners, and do-gooders of all kinds. It makes sense that leaving something or someone in a better place is a way to find meaning. The second way to find meaning is through experiencing and appreciating love, and beauty, and goodness. This makes sense to me as well, but I had some difficulty understanding Frankl’s third way to find meaning – through the attitude we take towards suffering.

Frankl had extensive experience in this area. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946 after surviving imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His basic premise is that the most important aspect of a well-lived life is not pleasure, as modern life has sought to convince us, but meaning. He claims that meaning can be found in the most despairing and grim circumstances. In fact, he says “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” I understood the words, and yet, it wasn’t until this pronouncement from a friend – that she would go out of her way to endure pain, suffering, and exhaustion as long as she could do it alongside a single fellow athlete – that I started to understand how suffering could be meaningful. 

I remember a conversation that I had with a devoutly Christian friend whose husband had just passed away in a difficult, painful death. In the immediate aftermath, all she could ponder repeatedly was “What was the meaning in his suffering?  There had to have been some meaning.” She needed to know that his suffering in the end meant something – otherwise, it was just pain. Frankl talks about how our suffering has the potential to turn an unspeakable predicament into a human achievement – to make something as wretched as torment and starvation in a concentration camp into a noble, dignified, and passionate rebellion. 

Somehow, this seems particularly relevant to life right now. Modern life can be singularly devoid of meaning. Think about Frankl’s three ways to find meaning: through creating, experiencing, and suffering. Well, we all spend a lot more time consuming than we do creating. In the past we played musical instruments, danced, and sang together for entertainment – now we just watch our screens. Our lives are more and more isolated from our communities and connection is becoming a scarce resource. Where we used to have space and time to appreciate beauty, goodness, and spirituality, we now rush to fill it with social media posts and mindless scrolling. And capitalism has taught us that we can buy, eat, drink, or travel our way towards pleasure and away from suffering – however much meaning and depth there might be there. Is it any wonder that we are having a modern existential crisis?

Certainly I’m not the first person who has called for more creating and more giving – or more mindfulness in savoring moments of beauty, love, and goodness. But what about a plug for more suffering? You just don’t hear that as frequently. And yet, researchers have been studying a phenomenon referred to as post-traumatic growth.  This is when someone experiences positive changes after a major life crisis. It goes beyond resilience and into thriving. Researchers have found that when you search for something good to take away from a truly awful event, it can be the catalyst that propels you into a higher level of emotional and psychological thriving. Psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun found five areas of positive growth after suffering: appreciation of life, relationships with others, more possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual intensity.   

Perhaps this means we can take away something good from the last two years of isolation, anxiety, and grief. In the same way that wars define generations, this pandemic will be a touchstone for all of us who lived through it. Those who come after us will not really be able to understand a core piece of our identity and meaning.

For me, all of this throws a different light on the pursuits of endurance athletes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not equating finishing a triathlon with surviving a concentration camp or even a global pandemic. Nor am I suggesting that self-inflicted physical challenges hold the same weight as the ones we have no choice over – particularly those that involve loss, pain, and death. In fact, I think there is something telling about these first-world, controlled, artificial, physical endurance challenges that speaks to the yearning we feel for significance. But I do understand now that endurance athletes can derive meaning from their physical and mental suffering, sharing that experience with others, challenging themselves to pull through, and taking strength and growth from that journey. So the next time I cheer on my friend as she finishes a race, I won’t just shake my head, but I will think of it potentially as one of the small keys to unlock meaning in a modern world that is hungering for it.

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