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Suffering: The Human Condition

Written By: Krista Keil

Concepts taken from Alexandre Havard’s, “Free Hearts,” and Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Since the inception of humanity, humankind has spent much time grappling with the meaning of suffering, seeking to answer questions like, why do bad things happen to good people, and what purpose does suffering serve? The majority of us have had life experiences that have shaken the ground upon which we stand, and filled our inner beings with turmoil. Suffering is a shared experience that is universal to human existence. Regardless of the minor or major impacts endured, suffering is present in daily life, in various forms.

There are different types of suffering including physical pain, (when you cut yourself or sprain your ankle); emotional turmoil, (going through a break up, experiencing the loss of the loved one); hardships by way of life events, (having your car broken into, getting laid off, having a rumor spread about you); psychological stressors, (bouts of anxiety, depression, familial issues); and traumatic experiences (forms of abuse, divorce, tragic losses, and the like, that effect all areas of our being). “Suffering,” surpasses any type of societal boundary including socioeconomic status, race, sex, age, religion, and beyond. So what do we do with it when it comes? How do we cope with difficulties in life, especially when the circumstances may be unjust?

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and visiting professor at Harvard and Stanford (among other institutions), has a lot to say on this topic in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who labored in four different concentration camps, whose parents, brother, and pregnant wife all passed away as a result of life in concentration camps. Based on his own experience and those of his patients, Frankl makes the case that suffering is part of the human condition- although it’s unavoidable, we can choose how we cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with hope and purpose. Frankl holds that the human person’s primary driver in life is the pursuit and discovery of what we find meaningful- or simply put, seeking and finding purpose.

While life comes with its challenges, difficulties don’t have to be seen as “bad.” While trying, there are beautiful life lessons and virtue to be found amidst hardship, such as perseverance, courage, hope, and humility. As Alexander Havard notes, gold is forged in fire. Our greatest struggles have the potential to become our greatest strengths. Frankl re-built his entire life and career based upon his experiences during the Holocaust. As Frankl states, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any 'how'...when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” What is your ‘why?’

Suffering has the potential to lead to our demise, or to our redemption. How you choose to respond to the storms in life when they come, is up to you. Choosing hope over despair, community over isolation, forgiveness over resentment, and action over stagnation, can lead a person down a path of growth, change, healing, and ultimately to a flourishing, purpose-driven life. At YLF, we seek to instill this message of hope in the youth we serve. If you’re searching for ways to apply these principles in daily life, in the home, or teach youngsters, a few suggestions are included below.

Here are 4 action items for you and your kids:

1. Start early: Talk to your children when they’re hurt or going through difficult moments. For example, when your child does poorly on a test, loses a pet, or has a run in with a friend at school, all of these are teachable moments. Kids are never “too young” to start the conversation about how to navigate challenging circumstances. It’s easy to neglect difficult topics- but by failing to engage children on the “tough stuff,” plain and simple- we fail our children. Having these conversations will only help your child learn how to live a purpose driven life and equip them for the journey. Starting the conversation when your children are young will form your child’s worldview and value system early on and strengthen their resolve to be unafraid when difficulty comes in life.

2. Read stories about individuals who overcome trials and tribulations. Storytelling is always a great way to reach anyone- but especially kids. Do not underestimate the power of a story. Those with children can attest that kids are like sponges- they absorb everything around them, including what they read, hear, and speak. Empower your children with stories rooted in virtue that exemplify what it means to persevere in the face of difficulties.

3. Re-frame your language: steer away from speaking in extremes. The words you use frame your child’s understanding of difficulty. Words like ''good” or ''bad,” “never” and “always” “hate” and “love” (when referring to daily life experiences) impact your child’s thought process. It’s not wrong to use these terms, but it’s important to acknowledge that what you say and how you say it matters. Overusing extreme (or “absolute”) language often exaggerates or blows out of proportion an event in comparison to the reality of the circumstances, resulting in claims that have a tendency to be untrue. The reality is: how you respond to challenges that arise matters. The language you use and emotions you express matter, because it frames your child’s experience. Perhaps consider using other more relative language such as, sometimes, usually/unusually, frequently/infrequently, successes/strengths, negative/difficult, rarely, and the like.

4. Find the positive in difficult moments. Teaching your child to identify the fruit that comes from difficulty, forms virtuous habits and develops character. For example, helping your child navigate a disagreement with a friend can teach good communication skills, conflict-resolution, and forgiveness. Maintaining the attitude that difficulties in life are merely trials to navigate, rather than dead ends, will help your child learn how to find the positive in any situation, and teach them that obstacles can be overcome. This mentality will cultivate character strengths that will contribute to your child’s well-being throughout the course of their lives.

“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.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


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