Despair = Suffering without Meaning

At the risk of jinxing myself I’ve been puzzling over why I do not suffer as much from fibromyalgia than the women (and men) I know who are in more pain, have more co-morbid conditions and debilitating symptoms than I do.

And because they are, for the most part, held hostage by their medical conditions they are unable to continue to work in their professions and live a “relatively normal” life.   I’m not sure my life is “normal”.  I’m often stopped in my tracks by exhaustion, distracted by pain but I’ve been blessed by being able to continue to work in a profession that gives my life purpose and meaning.

What’s prompted all my questioning and thinking?  

I’ve been reading books written by Viktor Frankl an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor. In his book Mans Search for Meaning he writes about his incarceration in nazi death camps where he observed that those who did not believe their existence had meaning succumbed in greater numbers from starvation and disease than those who held the belief that their life had meaning.

Their purpose didn’t involve grand schemes of saving the world, curing people or groundbreaking discoveries. Purpose ranged from finishing a manuscript of a book begun before incarceration, staying alive for a family member or simply believing God had an unknown reason for them to live.

So?  What part does purpose and meaning play in our lives? in your life?  Does having purpose and meaning help reduce emotional or physical suffering?  I don’t pretend to have the answer, just the question.

Here’s Dr Frankl in an interview about finding meaning in difficult times.  (He talks about his experience in the concentration camps toward the end of the interview.)

“. . .the man on the street knows that meaning may not only be found in creating a work and doing a deed, not only in encountering someone and experiencing something, but also, if need be, in the way in which he stands up to suffering.” Viktor Frankl


6 comments on “Despair = Suffering without Meaning

  1. Illness affect everyone different, with varying degrees of severity. I have fibro, but the only effects I notice is almost everywhere i push into my muscles, there’s pain. sometimes it’s worse than other times.
    I have MCS. Some of us have to wear a respirator to go anywhere, and others go everywhere without, and everything in between. We also are affected by different chemicals, in varying degrees. My observations, besides a different threshold of pain and outlook, is the connection with the body, immune system and extent of the exposure that triggered the illness. There are many illness under the umbrella of ‘Environmental Illness’.
    Some of us have one of them and others have all of them.
    A good example is Stephen Hawking. He has lived longer with ALS than most, but is severely physically impacted. A friend, on the onset of her illness had it severely and died within three years.


    • Aeeda,
      I absolutely agree with everything you pointed out. I still wonder what part having a purpose and finding meaning in our life vs the thought our life is meaningless impacts functioning with the debilitation that can accompany chronic illness.

      (Stephen Hawking, from all I know about him, feels he has purpose and his life has meaning – whether that has contributed to his longevity and productivity is part of my question.)

      I wonder if, with the severity of your illnesses, what difference (if any) the times you’ve felt you had some purpose and times you’ve been in despair of your life having any meaning have impacted you.

      Thank you for your thought provoking comment!


      • I have thought about your post. I never have thought in my life in terms of my purpose on the grand scheme of my life. I am very contingent of how lucky I am compared to the millions suffering. My life is a cake walk in that scheme. I practice gratitude.
        I have a lot of ups and downs. One thing consistent is my fundamental belief. I have never been religious in my life, since childhood. As an adult, I read the Tao, Buddhism, Confucius on a regular basis. Early on I thought it’s what I do while living that matters. I have one shot at it everyday on that stage. I certainly blow it at times.
        I do rehearse a lot:), but I know I have to seize the opportunities to live life and do good everyday, purposefully and randomly. That’s my purpose in life I think. Since my illness, I made a conscious decision to look outward and volunteer to get out of my despair. It has works in spades. That purpose for me connects me to the best of humanity. I’m in trouble when it’s all about me.


        • Aeeda,
          sending love,
          P.S. The ONLY difference, I see, between your beliefs and mine is that I believe this life here on earth is our “first life” and what we do and how we do it, the lessons we learn all impact the soul and are carried with us into the next “realm” (where we will have the continuing chance into eternity – which is a VERY long time – to learn more!!!)


  2. In my mind, purpose and meaning gives one the ability to persevere. Despite everything. I don’t think I could curl up and make that my life statement. No matter what, even if I’m unable to continue in my chosen profession, I have to do something. Otherwise, life would have no meaning. Kind of a circular statement isn’t it…..


    • Rosemary,
      I agree with you. For me perseverance comes first – to persevere in identifying my purpose – and then the circle: Perseverance is what keeps me “on” purpose which gives my life meaning which then helps me persevere through difficulty.
      Kinda like the chicken or the egg. The egg came first otherwise the chicken couldn’t hatch.


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