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When Meaning Strikes: Making Sense of Struggle and Suffering

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of man thinkingIn our work, we witness firsthand the struggle and suffering of people who sentence themselves to miserable jobs, hoping that somehow they will achieve success and happiness along the way. Amidst reengineering, globalization and 24/7 technologies, they often feel powerless, making their work seem like a “life sentence.” Imprisoned by their own thoughts, their careers slowly sap their spirit.

To find meaning in the face of such adversity, we need to look beyond the struggle and suffering for signs of hope and inspiration. And who best to turn to for inspiration than noted author and psychologist, Viktor Frankl. As a Holocaust survivor, Frankl spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp, where he suffered the loss of his wife, his parents and his brother … and yet discovered meaning beyond the suffering.

In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote graphically and unflinchingly about the treatment and torture of the prisoners, but also about the beauty of the human spirit, and how it could transcend the horror. He found meaning under the most unimaginable of circumstances. Frankl writes:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl teaches us that, when examined more closely, the notions of “struggle” and “suffering” can actually fuel resilience and hope. His lessons serve to inspire us with three basic beliefs about work and worklife:

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. If you want to escape a miserable worklife, you must clarify, claim and commit to who you are, what you have to offer, and what you want in your work. It is only through a process of living your beliefs that you have the slightest chance of finding meaningful work.

Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. The pursuit of a higher purpose is embedded within the career aspirations of growing numbers of people today. Whether for financial reward, achievement, or contribution, you must commit to values, beliefs and goals that only you can fulfill. You can’t expect meaningful work to just show up from some external source. Meaning is a “do-it-yourself” project.

We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment.

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