Stress-Reducing Belief #5: The Meaning of Suffering
Hi there, Pam Coburn-Litvak here.
Stress Absorbing Belief #5 is: I will accept every event in my life as having some meaning.
Let’s make an important distinction here: we are not saying that the suffering that comes to us always has inherent meaning. Some things we go through in life are tragic and make no sense.
What I am saying is that, often with God’s help, we can create a sense of meaning and purpose from our suffering.
Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl discovered this great truth during his three years living as a prisoner of war at Auschwitz.
In his excellent book Man's Search for Meaning, he writes: "There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life....
"Let me cite a clear-cut example: Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else.
“Now how could I help him?
“What should I tell him?
"Well, I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with the question, 'What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?'
'Oh,' he said, 'for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!'
“Whereupon I replied, 'You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.'
“He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.
"Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning."1
Seek to understand the meaning and you help alleviate the suffering.
This idea was expressed centuries ago in these words: "In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."2
In her excellent book Growing Through Stress, Dr. Kath Donovan writes: “When a friend of mine was killed… at the height of a fruitful ministry, his wife began a ministry to other widows.
“Such overflow ministry does not take away the pain but gives meaning to it.
“It is meaningless pain which can’t be endured.
“Trust believes that there is a meaning even though it is impossible at that time to see what it is.”3
The belief that God works through (though not necessarily causes) all the events in our lives can transform sources of suffering into sources of personal growth.
1. Victor E. Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning (Washington Square Pres, Inc., New York, 1963) pp. 164, 178, 179.
2. Romans 8:28
3. Kath Donovan, Growing Through Stress, p.72 (now out of print.)
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Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.