In my recent Infographic: 20 Ways to Practice Gratitude, I spoke of finding value, meaning and purpose out of suffering as a gratitude practice.
Throughout history, there have been many inspirational people who have shown us that even through unimaginable suffering and tragedy in life; it is possible to find value, meaning and purpose out of major life crises. They provide hope – in times of despair – that it is not only possible to merely survive, but to thrive and triumph in life.
Nelson Mandela was a perfect example of someone who was able to do this. He turned his suffering into hope. His attitude was one of optimism, even in the face of extreme adversity. He declared,
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes,
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
The key is to find value, meaning and purpose out of our suffering, symptoms and in life itself
To find value, meaning and purpose out of life’s difficulties and to turn tragedy into a triumph, we are required to become present to life and to reach some level of acceptance of ‘what is’.
But why on earth would we want to do that? It feels scary and painful – so we get busy trying to avoid, sweep under the rug, numb, eradicate, check-out from, quick-fix, medicalize and medicate our crises and resulting symptoms. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to find the value, meaning and purpose hidden within our anxieties, addictions, depressions, eating problems and physical illnesses.
It’s not about suffering unnecessarily. Frankl clearly states, ‘to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.’ Rather, it is about holding the context that every crisis contains within it the seeds for transformation and growth. And…ultimately, we have the ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances even if at first, it doesn’t appear so (Frankl 1947).
Some reflections for finding value, meaning and purpose
- Value, meaning and purpose can be found all over – become curious
- Engage in a journey of self-discovery and self-inquiry – you will be amazed at what you find!
- Spend time in dialogue and reflection about how your symptoms have and/or continue to serve you. It may seem strange that something so limiting to your life-energy, can also be serving you in some way. It’s often about both.
- Looking back over your life, has anything positive arisen out of difficult circumstances? How have you grown because of this?
- Is your life energy trapped in maintaining cycles of anxiety, addiction, depression, eating problems, overspending or perfectionism for example? What steps do you need to take to free yourself of your unnecessary suffering?
- Who are your role models and what do you admire about them? How can you activate these parts and qualities within yourself?
- Check out these inspirational life-stories of people who have turned tragedy into a triumph: The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to the Blind Side, and Beyond by Don Yaeger, A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer, Gandhi: An Autobiography by Gandhi, The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank and Left for Dead by Samantha Barlow.
- Hold the Serenity Prayer in mind, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
- Practice cultivating self-kindness, self-compassion and self-care as you embark on this journey
- Try reflective meditation using seed words such as courage, resilience, acceptance, trust and gratitude
- As you work through whatever it is that you have been numbing your life with, seek support from a therapist who holds a hopeful context and who is able to reframe life’s difficulties but who can also sit with, and bear, deep suffering.