The recent tragedies reported in the media are not the first of their kind… and they will not be the last. Throughout human history, tragedy and suffering have touched every life, in great ways or in small ways. How can we find meaning and strength to endure, when we are afflicted by our own personal challenges — or by the heartbreaking news of someone else’s?
This age-old question, so relevant in the shadow of recent media stories, was perhaps never asked or answered better than in 1946 when Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychoanalyst recently released from a Nazi prison camp, wrote his timeless book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl had spent several years in this inhumane environment, witnessing firsthand the unspeakable and daily atrocities of the Holocaust. He chronicled the terrible suffering, the giving up hope, the loss of meaning experienced by many of his fellow inmates at the concentration camp. But he also recorded the private triumphs of a few of his fellow prisoners. His account provides another testament of the strength of the human spirit, when it looks beyond its own suffering to a higher meaning, a higher good. Frankl reports:
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. — P.65-66.
Throughout his book, Frankl contrasts the choices of such remarkable individuals with the more common response — people who gave up hope in the concentration camps, became bitter, or even became inhumane and violent themselves in response to the violence that surrounded them. He reported how those special individuals who overcame this terrible experience did so out of love, which they discovered and strengthened within themselves at a much deeper level, in the face of these extreme circumstances. These individuals were strengthened by the tender recollection of loved ones — and by the determination to provide at least a little relief and support to someone else, even in the midst of their own heartbreak. They became more fully, vibrantly human — boldly daring to extend love to others, even while they were being treated unkindly themselves.
“The last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” is the privilege of every human being — regardless of race, religion, or family background. The challenge to find positive meaning and growth, even in significantly negative circumstances, is a challenge we share with all humanity.
How can we, in facing devastating circumstances in life, find meaning, hope, and purpose?
How can we find the strength to endure well, so that our adversity can play a positive role, rather than a negative role, in shaping our character and our relationships?
- Focus on the positives
When terrible things happen, it is human nature to focus on them, day and night. This natural human tendency is vastly expanded by our media system, which feeds us an unending stream of stories and information about destructive events. While it’s important to be informed, we must always remember that a single negative event is only one event out of thousands; that a single destructive person is only one person out of thousands.
For every bad thing that happens, if we will look around, there are many good things that happen. While these don’t get zoomed-in media attention like the negative stories, they are just as abundant — and just as real. In our personal lives, and in the public life we share as a community, we must remember to look for, appreciate, and celebrate the positive — especially during our hard times.
- Find someone close by to support and help
There is almost no better cure for despair or a sense of meaninglessness than playing a positive supportive role for another human being who really needs you. You may not be able to fix the heartbreak of far-away families in the most recently reported news story. But you can absolutely make a difference for someone in your own circle of acquaintance — reaching out to a troubled family member, neighbor, or friend; or volunteering to assist some local organization that brings relief to the disadvantaged in your community.
- Remind yourself of what you, and others, have already overcome
Human beings can endure great suffering, and learn great lessons from it. Look back over your own life, to things you’ve endured and overcome before, and what you learned from those experiences. Look to other individuals in history, in the media, or in the circle of your acquaintance, who have endured tragedy and overcome it — becoming better, stronger, kinder people in the process. Nourish hope within yourself that this most recent challenge can be overcome, and that you can become an even more resilient, wiser, more compassionate version of yourself.
- Keep a personal journal,
chronicling your experiences, your feelings, and the things you learn. Journaling these experiences will give you perspective that makes the hard times more bearable. And it will provide a helpful resource for you and for others, to extend strength in enduring difficult times ahead.
As we face serious challenges, in our world and in our personal lives, we can move forward with serenity and hope — knowing that even the very worst experiences have power to contribute to the making of our very best selves, the development of our very finest gifts.One tiny star shines brightest on the very darkest night. In the dark times we, and those around us, pass through; those bright stars of hope and goodness can become visible and strong, bringing out the best in us far more powerfully than is ever possible in more tranquil times.