Through suffering, one has the opportunity to turn a terrible situation into a personal achievement. Frankl writes that when we cannot change what is happening to us, “we are challenged to change ourselves.” For example, one of Frankl’s patients’ wives died two years previously, and he was still overcome with grief that he had to live without her. Frankl asked him what would have happened if he had died instead of his wife. When the man realized that if the situation were reversed, his wife would be suffering instead, he could understand his own pain as a sacrifice he made for his wife. Once he discovered the meaning of his suffering, he was able to bear his burden.
Frankl gives a more real-world example of how to overcome suffering to complement the descriptions of suffering he provides from his time in concentration camps. Once this man was able to frame his suffering as a sacrifice, he was able to withstand his grief. Frankl did not encourage the man to find a reason for his grief—instead, he just helped him see it in a new light.
Logotherapists believe that man’s will to meaning is stronger than his desire for pleasure or need to avoid pain. It is for this reason that man is able to endure incredible pain when that pain is meaningful. Frankl says, however, that suffering should never be sought out on purpose. While those who are suffering should embrace their suffering as an opportunity to find meaning in their lives, those who are not suffering should explore their will to meaning through love or work.
Frankl is very clear that suffering is not the only path to finding meaning in one’s life, and it should be avoided when possible. Suffering, however, is inevitable, so everyone must come to terms with it at some point in his or her life.
Frankl tells the reader about the most meaningful moment of his time in the camps. After giving up his clothing and manuscript upon his arrival to Auschwitz, he was given the clothes of a prisoner who had died. In a pocket, Frankl found a page from a Jewish prayer book containing the most important Hebrew prayer, Shema Yisrael. He interpreted this moment as a challenge to live out his logotherapeutic ideas instead of just writing about them. Frankl argues that if suffering does not have meaning, then there is no reason to live at all.
Frankl came to terms with his suffering by framing it as an opportunity to practice the teachings of his life work. Instead of suffering pointlessly, he understood that he could suffer for the benefit of science and humankind. Thus Frankl found meaning both through suffering and through work.