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The Meaning of Suffering?
Why Cancer = Introspection + Anxiety
We’re going a bit deep here, but I guess that’s natural. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks a little more intensely nowadays.
A guy called Viktor Frankl believed there was a clear explanation for this.
Frankl spent his adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp. From his unimaginably horror-full experiences, he learnt all there was to know about the negative elements of the human condition:
He felt that when we encounter these negatives - pain, guilt and death, it usually makes us search for the meaning of life.
It perhaps explains why cancer survivors are often more introspective now than before.
Frankl felt that these deep thoughts could often get carried away into a full blown existential crisis resulting in anxiety: What is the point of it all? What is our purpose? Why are we here to suffer? Why are we experiencing this pain? Why this guilt at surviving? Why? Why? Why? If these questions go unanswered and continue to circle our minds, it makes you feel out of control and even more stressed.
Perhaps you’d think that after surviving the Holocaust, our friend Frankl might question the meaning of life more than anyone and that the questions he posed would go unanswered.
Instead, he believed that life always holds meaning. He didn’t doubt it. Didn’t engage in anxiety over existential doubt.
- Meaning from Creativity
Frankl thought meaning could be found by creating something or accomplishing a task. By giving something to the world through our work.
He thought that creating a beautiful drawing or through the impact of occupation, meaning could be found by contributing to the world at large.
- Meaning from Experience
He also thought meaning could be found through experiencing something fully or loving somebody, by savouring every moment of the day and appreciating the gifts of life and nature.
- Attitudes to Suffering
Finally, and this is the most interesting… he thought meaning could be found through suffering and our response to it.
He felt suffering was the most important element of human survival, an unavoidable part of life, and believed that man’s ultimate freedom is his ability to choose how to respond.
Frankl believed you could treat suffering like a challenge and facing pain is the greatest of human achievements. He rallied for a defiant human spirit that searched inside for inner strength and thought that by being ‘brave’ and battling through suffering, we find meaning.
This is starting to sound like the military description of cancer as a ‘fight’. Seeing cancer as a battle celebrates our suffering and provides a way to find meaning through it.
Celebrating suffering can come in different guises and encourages us to reach out to other suffering people. Experiencing pain ourselves means we have more empathy for others. It’s easier to walk in their shoes: and understand their experiences.
Applications of Frankl’s Theory
Alas, Frankl does not suggest a breakthrough in dealing with suffering, anxiety and existential crises. The applications of his theory are pretty obvious, but good to note.
- ‘Dereflecting’ anxiety:
Anxiety can be caused by repetitive feelings or attitudes. We’re full of uncertainty and unanswered questions: fear, or stress, or negative thoughts manifest in anxious feelings. Viktor thinks we should ‘dereflect’ our attention away from the self and these feelings, by focusing on a task, or thinking about others.
(Easier said than done, I say!)
Frankl thinks we should ask for the thing we fear most. This doesn’t mean literally, he's not daft. But for people who experience anxiety, fear can paralyze. By using humour and ridiculing what we fear, it removes fear, and the anxiety associated with it. Humour and laughter makes you feel more in control of negative emotions.
Some people go full out, mock cancer. There’s the stand up comedian over in the US: Tig Notaro, who really dragged cancer into the comedy spotlight. Find a short clip here.
And this great little book of cartoons tells it how it is for breast cancer patients.
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