The Saving Nature of Pain

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Viktor Frankl, a Jewish physician and the originator of a therapeutic modality called “Logotherapy,” found himself imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II. There, he made an interesting observation. Frankl noticed that it was not always the strongest individual who survived the harsh conditions of the camp. He observed that the people who were the most likely to survive the harshness of the treatment and the environment were those who could ascribe some type of meaning to their circumstances. In the absence of meaning, it became obvious to Frankl that pain would kill a person. Having worked a great deal with people in emotional and physical pain, I am no stranger to encountering people who have had thoughts of ending their own life. For these individuals the pain that they experience drives them to the ultimate act of desperation to escape it. As the pain grows and that person sees no other way out, their struggle isolates them and leads them to ultimately make the choice to extinguish their own life. It is not that they want to die, but rather that they don’t want to hurt anymore. Anyone who has ever felt extreme emotional pain and anguish from tragedy and loss in their lives does not find it difficult to empathize with a suicidal person. However, from time to time in my work, I meet people whose pain is keeping them alive. I know that this probably sounds odd, but hear me out. Have you ever noticed how interested people and society as a whole are in the misfortunes of another? Now, there are those individuals out there who are evil and psychopathic to the degree that they get off on the suffering of others, but there are also many out there who are not psychopaths but are still captivated by the pain others encounter in their lives. I think the reason for this is that it speaks to their own pain. Watching the suffering of another gives a perspective on pain that one doesn’t have to feel personally. It also reminds us that we are not alone in feeling pain ourselves. One other thing that you might notice when one bears witness to the suffering of another is a meaning making process. For example, after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans, many prominent evangelical ministers publicly stated that the storm was “God’s Punishment” for the “sins” of the city’s inhabitants. The individuals were attempting to ascribe a meaning to the pain, for in the absence of meaning, pain is confusing and intolerable. Said another way, pain without meaning causes existential suffering. As a matter of fact, a big piece of the integration of loss in the grieving process is coming to some sort of personal meaning for it all. Part of the plight of the suicidal person that leads to them ending their own life is an inability to make meaning of their pain and circumstances. What is interesting though, is that there are people who have the same experience of having difficulty meaning making, but instead of leading them to kill themselves, it actually keeps them alive if for no other reason that to find some kind of meaning for what they are going through. It is no accident that the highest demographic for suicide in America is the middle age white male. This group has had more privilege than any group in history and at the same time been arguably promised the most as well. When their lives don’t end up where they thought they would be or they befall the tragedy of death, loss, divorce, or something equally debilitating, it places them face to face with the Eriksonian conflict of Generativity versus Stagnation. They lose a sense of meaning and purpose for their life and in the absence of other protective factors coupled with an inability to find meaning in it all they end their own lives. On the other hand, other minority demographics who have lower instances of suicide are often the one’s who lean into their pain actually making it a protective factor. Some of these demographics have suffered so greatly as a collective that they have been forced into being more active in their meaning making process. Promised less and not having privilege, they had to push forward through the suffering that they were subjected to in order to survive and in many ways, survival became their meaning. Pain serves a purpose. It lets us know that something is wrong. It gives us a chance to course correct and adapt in some cases and in others, it pushes us to reflect on the essence and purpose of our existence. It can drive a person to end their life or it can serve to protect a person if for no other reason that one’s desire to understand their own suffering…and for those that engage in the latter process, the personal growth from that pain can increase our resiliency and lead us to wisdom as well as spiritual and emotional growth. It all boils down to how we ascribe meaning to the pain we endure. In the midst of suffering, no meaning is helpful save the meaning that you ascribe to the situation yourself. To push through pain and seek your own meaning and truth in a thing not only helps us to grow from our suffering, but it may ultimately be the very thing that keeps a person in extreme suffering alive.-

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