Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays amid periodic quarantines from the bubonic plague. Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-bedroom log cabin and had to suffer in poverty. Sammy Davis Jr. not only fought in WWII, but fought off racism from his fellow soldiers, saying “I must have had a knockdown, drag-out fight every two days.” All to say, some people can achieve greatness while experiencing immense suffering. What sets them apart? Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has a theory on it.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” – Viktor Frankl
Frankl didn’t just write about how he had to suffer — he lived it. In WWII, he was imprisoned in four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His mother, father and brother all died and he was separated from his wife and children. While enduring starvation and abuse, Frankl noticed that some of his fellow prisoners were more resilient than others. They had something that gave them the drive to survive. He realized that for him, imagining seeing his wife and children again gave him the will to continue on. It gave him meaning. Each suffering he endured brought him closer to the moment he would see them again.
After the war, Frankl tragically learned that his wife and children had died. He reflected that if he had learned this in the concentration camp, he wouldn’t have survived. Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning—a memoir of his experience—to share his philosophy with the world.
But how do you put this lesson into practice? How do you take a miserable life of constant suffering and make it meaningful?
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