Suffering and the Search for Meaning
Updated: Jun 16
Suffering is part of what it is to be human. The “art of living” (Discourses of Epictetus, 1.15.3) is in large part how we cope with suffering. How can we approach the topic of suffering with positivity and encourage those recovering from alcohol treatment to find new meaning and purpose in their lives?
We all have our share of suffering, some perhaps more than others. Some cope well and others don't. I suffered with my family when my brother died. In some respects I coped well and in other respects I perhaps did not. It probably did play some part in my “alcohol abuse disorder” but I’ve now been sober for more than twenty years.
Alcoholics and others with addictive disorders suffer. Some say this is a chosen path and not worthy of sympathy. Fair enough, there may be some element of truth in this, although modern neuroscience would say something more nuanced about choice. In any case, often the addiction is the result and not the cause of suffering. Many fall into addiction through self-medication to alleviate suffering.
How we cope with suffering plays a very important role in our progression through life. It's part of who we are and of who we become. The response of many is to turn inward. We blame others or we ask, perhaps with some justification, why me and not that person? We are often resentful of others, although we are not fully aware of what is happening in their private lives. This response to suffering becomes a vicious circle. It only makes things worse.
In modern language, a stoical response to suffering means keeping a "stiff upper lip". Basically, grinning and bearing it or getting on with life is the interpretation. But this is a betrayal of Stoic philosophy. The latter does not mean revelling in suffering either. Instead, it says much more about our attitude to suffering and finding meaning and purpose in life.
Epictetus starts his Enchiridion (handbook or manual) by saying “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control”. This echoes a saying well-known to those who attend fellowship meetings! We are more than simply the outcome of physical events. It is how we respond to others and the world around us that determines the type of person we become.
We form impressions and core beliefs about others and the world. Our response often gives rise to emotions and suffering. Instead, we need to be more accepting of others and our place in the world. We have to accept that bad things can and do happen. We have to let go of attachments, change the way we think about things, and practise the “virtues” of courage, justice, wisdom and moderation, however hard this may be.
This all sounds a bit complicated. What do these ideas mean in practice and how can we use them in recovery from addiction? Where can we see the broader significance of Stoic influence and why it matters to human development?
One prominent example is given by Viktor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), he writes as a survivor of the concentration camps. Based on his experiences, he developed his concept of logotherapy – a form of psychotherapy to help people find new meaning and purpose in their lives.
Frankl contrasts two approaches to suffering. One approach, as we have already noted above, is to self-isolate, form resentments about others, and lose hope. This generally does not work out very well. Instead, those who fare better engage with the community of fellow sufferers, look out for one another with selfless acts, find beauty in small things, and enjoy humour.
He says we retain our inner freedom – a key insight of Stoic philosophy - we have a choice as to how to respond to the most challenging of circumstances. Our spiritual freedom is the ability in some sense to transcend space and time to make sense of our “provisional existence” – a version of what we have previously called keeping “eyes on the prize”.
We don’t forget suffering and simply move on. We don’t just sweep it under the carpet. That’s not the idea. I was always struck by old soldiers breaking down in tears as they recalled experiences from seventy years earlier as though it had happened yesterday. I remember my family suffering almost fifty years ago. You never forget but with time and healing you can come to terms with it, although it’s not easy.
We need to find a sense of purpose in the future that will reach back and give hope in the present. Some find this in religion but others don’t. Have the courage to let go of preconceptions of the old self. Take a leap of faith in working out your own destiny. What did I do? I shared my suffering as an alcoholic. I tried to understand and learn from it through treatment and study. This sent me on a journey that continues to this day.
What are the lessons for addicts or those in recovery still suffering? Don't remain mired in the past. Look outward, not inward. Be appreciative of beauty wherever you find it. Get help from others, listen to the stories of others, and reach out to those who suffer. Discover where you find real enjoyment and a sense of happiness in life. This is how and where you will find freedom.
All of this is much easier said than done, of course. Nobody said it was easy – but there are many who have been there before you and they are ready to give you support.