“The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone.”
As a new prisoner in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl was often made to carry full latrine buckets across the camp to dispose of them. The buckets regularly splashed onto his face and only set of clothing; any sign of disgust on his face was met with a whipping from one of the guards. Frankl was a Jew during WWII, who wrote of this experience in his bookMan’s Search for Meaning. In Auschwitz, torture was typical, the food was elusive, and misery permeated the thoughts of everyone there.
Even though Frankl suffered in ways you and I can’t imagine, most of us can relate to his plight on some level. Misery is a language we all speak. Many of us might struggle to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We may not be in a prison camp against our will, but when suffering occurs, it can seem just as nonsensical. Frankl’s imprisonment happened for no good reason other than the fact he was a Jew. When you suffer for no reason, hope for a better life seems ridiculous.
During his time in the death camp, Frankl met a man who had a random dream that his release from Auschwitz would happen on March 30th. He clung to this belief and worshiped it, but as it became dreadfully apparent that it wasn’t going to happen, the man lost hope. On March 30th, he became delirious, lost consciousness, and eventually died.
When we suffer without purpose, we’ll grasp onto anything to provide meaning in the midst of the madness. The reason we love music is that it provides that meaning. Between bad break-ups, broken friendships, family problems, or our pain, we turn to music to make sense of what we’re going through. We’re all desperately grasping for meaning.
While we all will endure suffering at some point in our lives, there are only two ways in which it can be used.
- You suffer needlessly and the world is unfair.
- You can use your suffering to find purpose.
Here’s the catch, though – the only way to drag yourself out of meaningless suffering and find purpose is by serving other people. Only by converting your suffering into service can you escape its oppressive hold on your mind.
How on earth, do we accomplish that, though?
“I forced my thoughts to find something to cling to, and suddenly I found myself standing on a platform in a warm lecture room. I was giving a lecture about the psychology of a concentration camp!”
Frankl explained that this revelation trained him that he could add meaning to his suffering by teaching about his horrific experiences to students. He could serve others through his suffering and chose to see his prison camp experience in a different view. He made light of his hardships by forcing his nightmarish experiences into an opportunity to help others. The Nazis could torture and starve him, but they couldn’t defeat him.
Don’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Build a house there.
We’ll never escape suffering; it’s part of life. Rich or poor, we all suffer. The good news is that we are wholly able to use that suffering to add joy and satisfaction to our relationships. We can suffer for nothing, or suffer for something we believe in.
If you’re going through a season of hardships, maybe begin serving where your passions are most evident. Do you like to cook? Serve food in a homeless shelter. Do you enjoy the gym? Take some time to teach children or the disabled how to use the weight room to stay healthy. Love good music? Start a rehabilitation group for people who used to listen to Nickelback (I’m kidding). It takes effort and hard work to become vulnerable and serve other people selflessly, but when you fill your service with meaning, you’ll discover limitless passion.
A word of caution – Don’t spend all of your time trying to “find your calling.” You’ll find your calling through serving. For instance, I’m terrible with kids. I first started serving at my local church while I was in college. A pastor decided that I would fit in well with 4th Graders, but man, was he wrong. The kids just hurled dodgeballs in my face, and it was a pretty awful time. Later, I went on to serve in the Men’s Recovery Ministry and found that I connected well with other men who were familiar with failure much like me.
Teaching children was not my calling, but I had to try it first to figure that out. I had to get off the couch, that little island of quiet suffering, and get smacked in the face with a dodgeball to find out where I connected best.
Be forewarned, serving others can be tricky. Sometimes we serve only to feel good about ourselves or so we can write it off on our taxes. Deep down, you’ll know why you’re doing it and so will the people around you. If your service seems fake, then others will assume there’s a catch. You might be able to get away with it for a time, but people can sniff out insincerity. Service means helping others without a return on investment. If you’re expecting a return, it’s no longer service- it’s a business transaction.
Each of us has something beautiful to offer the world. When we step outside our comfort zone to share whatever that is, be ready. It will be challenging. People may treat you with indifference, or mock you for being a martyr. But when you find passion and purpose, it won’t matter. You’ll know who you are, and your suffering will become passionate work.
So step into the fray. Because when you add meaning to your suffering, you might just discover your pain gives you purpose.