Victor E. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, detailed in Man’s Search for Meaning, have enduring significance and popularity among contemporary Christians and Jews. They demonstrate that suffering can be the source of meaning, but Frankl stops short of saying that suffering is an essential: “But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering–provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable.”1 He argues that there are other sources from which man can discover meaning, “There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone…”2
Accomplishment, appreciation of art, and interpersonal relationships, then, are sources of meaning independent from suffering, according to Frankl. Frankl is considered a religious existentialist because he thinks deeply and examines the meaning of life and existence itself, and we can therefore examine and expand on the existentialist philosophy he created. In examining each of the sources of meaning Frankl identified, we can see that not only do they contain suffering in various forms (usually less severe and more subtle then that of the concentration camps), but that the suffering endemic to these sources is necessary for them to possess meaning.
The first source which Frankl names is the accomplishment of creating a work or doing a deed. The writer who has stared down a blank page struggling to find words and the academic who studies a lifetime to make a contribution to their field are both uniquely familiar with the true scope of their respective accomplishments once complete. Those who have not endured the suffering of bullying the brain to keep writing when it wants nothing but to quit cannot understand their accomplishment. But the person who has suffered to bring about an accomplishment knows its value and can truly appreciate it.
This suffering exalts and gives meaning to the purpose it is directed toward. We can see this even in more trivial accomplishments, like in winning a video game. Certain video games have options to increase or decrease their difficulty, and high difficulties result in a certain level of suffering to the player, as the player endures mental strain and frustrating failures before reaching their goal. Why does the player ever set the difficulty above the easiest setting? Because the difficulty gives meaning to the accomplishment of finishing the game, even if the difficulty is voluntary and minor compared to other sufferings of life.
The second source of meaning, in part, is “experiencing something,” or beauty and art. We can see that art involves certain subtle or vicarious forms of suffering, which gives it meaning. The richest works of art often deal with tragic subjects; Oedipus, Hamlet, Götterdämmerung, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather are each reliant on some form of empathetic or vicarious suffering on the part of the viewer to give the work emotional meaning. This applies to all art in some form. Those who study the theory of comedy find that it is based on pain examined in new perspective. A world without suffering, or at least minor inconvenience, would be devoid of all humor. Even the contemplation of perfect beauty involves a different, more subtle suffering; a hopeless longing to somehow be a part of that beauty which can never be fulfilled. The Book of Mormon is filled with accounts of wars and even genocides, which are a key part of how it teaches us about suffering, sin, and redemption through Christ.
The second part of this source is what Frankl calls “encountering something,” or love and friendship. Once again, this is an area of life that is not free of suffering, and it may be the case that love and friendship are made real by sacrifice. The most meaningful relationships in most lives are those with one’s spouse and children, those people for whom most is sacrificed.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury says that the importance of a book comes from its texture; “To me it means texture… They show the pores in the surface of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.”3 This is a principle that can apply suffering to all life; that if anything is to have meaning it must have texture, or some amount of suffering.
We believe in a God who suffers. Christ suffered tremendously as part of the atonement, but our Heavenly Father suffers as well because of the iniquities of his children. His status as a God entitles him to both the extreme joy of bringing about “the immortality and eternal life of man,” but also consigns him to the suffering of a worried parent.
When Frankl qualified his thesis in saying that suffering was not necessary to find meaning, he may not have wanted to compare the relatively trivial sufferings of everyday life to those of the concentration camp, or to say that maximizing suffering was the path to meaning. It seems from these examples that strategically minimal suffering can maximize its return of meaning, and that the path for those who follow Frankl’s tradition of existentialism is to minimize unnecessary suffering, to extract all possible meaning from the suffering that cannot be avoided, and to be willing to pursue meaning despite the suffering that may accompany the pursuit.
Note: This essay was written in part for BYU’s Philosophy of Religion course (PHIL 215) in August of 2019 and was revised in June of 2021 for publication online. I highly recommend reading Man’s Search for Meaning. Not only is it one of the most compelling accounts of the Nazi concentration camps ever written but, it also examines the experience through Frankl’s unique psychological and philosophical lens.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946; repr., Boston: Beacon, 2014), 106.
2. Frankl, Man’s Search, 137.
3. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1951; repr., New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 79
Top image: A prayer room at Theresienstadt, painting by Malva Schalek, circa 1942-1944. Viktor Frankl and his family were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, where his father died. He was later sent to Auschwitz in 1944.