What Does It Mean?

It is a fairly simple question. One we may not pause long enough to answer very often. But the power of meaning cannot be understated. It can, truly, save lives. At least, this is Viktor Frankl’s theory, a Holocaust survivor and psychologist. Frankl writes about this very principle in Man’s Search for Meaning.

In the Nazi concentration camps and as he survived the war, he had a horrific front seat to suffering. He watched as some could no longer hold onto any hope. He said those individuals died within 48. Then, others had this kind of hope he calls “tragic optimism” whereby they suffered but also sought out some type of meaning in the suffering. 

There is no doubt—this is a time of suffering. Our lives have been irrevocably shifted, changed, altered, and adjusted.

The hope of transformation brings meaning. Frankl notes this happening in the over twelve thousand suicidal patients he cared for who, though suffering greatly, were grateful their attempt to end their lives was unsuccessful. He notes in the work done at Yale interviewing Vietnam Veterans who stated that their captivity was extraordinarily stressful—filled with torture, disease, malnutrition, and solitary confinement—they nevertheless…. benefited from the captivity experience, seeing it as a growth experience. 

Frankly, Frankl, this sounds crazy to me!

To suffer in war or the ugly darkness of suicidal attempts or captivity—who could say any type of suffering such as this could not only be survivable but, moreover, be transformative!? That seems preposterous. 

And yet, time and again, his research shows that through the worst kind of suffering humanity was able to bear it by finding some sort of meaning in it. He says, “becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plan words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”  

Are you able to ask what can be done? This kind of tragic optimism is not to say that we are not suffering. No! There is much suffering. Tragic Optimism is like holding a golden ticket, or knowing where the wardrobe to Narnia is, that somehow this story is not over—we are merely in the midst of a very hard, brutal, terrible chapter and someday, hopefully soon, the page will turn and we will write a new chapter. (For more on this you can read about Dr. Brown’s work here.)

Even in the midst of this suffering one of my recently favorite articles notes how all the dystopian books and series got it wrong. The end of world didn’t bring out the worst in us, so far it has brought out an immense neighborliness. I love that. It gives me hope that through this tragedy and through our collective suffering humanity will in fact do what we have always done: survive and find meaning. So, I cannot help but then also hope that this world may just look a little kinder, a little slower, a little stronger than she did before because of you and because you held that golden ticket tight and remembered, this is not the end, there is meaning. 

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