Is there a bright side to adversity?

In the midst of calamity, it can be difficult to make sense of one’s feelings and the situation they face. As negative situations take their natural course a human being may experience the typical emotions of denial, anger, and depression as they navigate their personal predicament.

Image by Giani Pralea

In addition to these emotions, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says that an individual may also endure the stage of bargaining as a means to cope with their undesired state. Ultimately, one may reach a stage of acceptance, but David Kessler suggests another significant stage of the human experience when dealing with grief and loss – meaning.

Over the past six weeks – since many parts of Australia implemented a ‘stay-at-home’ order – I’ve occupied my time with meaningful tasks. One of those pastimes has been reading. The latest book I’ve read was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor. Frankl’s text was a heartbreaking, yet enlightening account of the human spirit under immense mental pressure and inhumane circumstances.

While recalling the details of his harrowing three years as a prisoner in a concentration camp, Frankl makes astute observations about the human mind and self-preservation. As he puts it, “[…] the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

He discovered that despite being malnourished and exposed to intense physical pain while in captivity, he could still control one aspect of his life – his mind. He writes,“[…] everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

During the course of his everyday labour in the concentration camp, he would think of amusing things for “humor was another one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.” He would also take his mind on nostalgic, sentimental journeys. Remembering his wife and having conversations with her in his imagination contributed to his inner strength, and it afforded him escapism from his tortured reality. He emphasises that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Savouring one’s personal memories can be energising and may bring positive emotions during life’s hardships. Frankl observed that, “the intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.” But he cautioned against living solely in the past and failing to acknowledge the present and its opportunities regardless of how unpleasant the circumstances may be.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

– viktor e. Frankl

Frankl views suffering as a necessary part of one’s life. In order to endure one must find a meaning to their life – something or someone to live for. The prisoners who survived their unjust plight possessed such inner strength and purpose. As Frankl recalls, “once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us we refused to minimise or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.”

When a human being looks beyond themselves, perhaps they can make sense of suffering. The four decades of research into the concept of meaning shows that avoiding pain and suffering can be detrimental to one’s psychological wellbeing, as it emphasises pleasure and hedonism. “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

In contrast to Frankl’s three years in a concentration camp, the events of the past six weeks in Australia could be dismissed as trivial, but as Frankl said “[…] the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.” We each experience pain differently, but we can choose our attitude towards it.

What makes a suffering so difficult for many is having no sense of how long one must endure. Frankl said as much about his imprisonment and referred to it as a “provisional existence”. He noted, “[…] the most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be.

He added further, “the unemployed worker, for example, is in a similar position. His existence has become provisional and in a certain sense he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal.”

So, is there a bright side to adversity? Frankl turns to Nietzsche for wisdom when he addressed his fellow prisoners in an attempt to stir up their inner strength, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” According to Frankl, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

The bright side is that you’re still breathing. There is still beauty in the world. This is an opportunity to rise up and test one’s inner strength. Finally, may these words from Frankl – an Auschwitz survivor – strengthen your resolve, “whoever was alive had reason for hope.”

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