Attributing Meaning To Suffering – A Survival Tactic

In Khmer script reads the word “Kolbamnang” – គោលបំណង – Translate that into English and that says the word, “purpose”.

I got this tattoo about a year ago now and I’ve used it as a compass, ever since. I’m finding more and more about what this word actually means to me, as time passes.

One event that triggered the decision to get this word tattooed on my arm was when I moved to Cambodia. The sense of purpose I felt was such fuel for my joy and fulfillment, something I felt had been lacking for years leading up to my decent.

As time goes on, I learn more about why I got this word tattooed on me. Subconsciously, I believe part of the decision was inspired by Viktor Frankl, author of the book ‘A Man’s Search For Meaning’.

The setting is world war 2, and Viktor has become a Jewish victim of the Nazi lead halloucast. In a Polish camp, Austrian neurologist, Viktor was held captivate for many years. Viktor conducted his own experiment, observing the nature of human beings when under some of the most gruesome and grotesque of conditions.

These camps were bases for ugly forms of torture and murder, one of humanity’s most extreme displays of evil destruction. Viktor made it a mission to continue to fight and not lose hope, even though death was occurring in abundance every single minute of the day right in front of him. His whole family were killed and his fellow captives were also tortured and starved.

The prisoners of the war camps died, either from being gassed or they died from other illness and exhaustion. Viktor noticed one thing that set apart those prisoners who survived the longest compared with those who quickly fell to their inevitable demise.

Through close observation and from his own experience, living these conditions for many years, the neurologist learned a profound lesson about the human spirit and it’s will to survive, even under the most harshest and hellish of circumstances. Viktor found that those who attributed meaning to their suffering and to their experience were the ones who survived, or at least survived longer than those who lost all hope.

There were individuals in these camps who couldn’t find any reason to continue to live, as they believed their fate was already sealed. They were to continue to be tortured and worked like slaves and then eventually gassed. These people were seen to deteriorate quicker, physically. These were the people who picked up psychical illness quicker, which supports the notion of mental health and physical health being directly related with each other.

Those who made plans for when they got out were the ones who had a better chance of survival, as they had a sense of purpose – Viktor’s purpose was one of epic proportion. He wanted to use this experience as a way to observe the human spirit so that he could one day share it with the world. His book is so powerful, it has done nothing less than move the masses since he was freed and the book was published.

Dr. Frankl not only managed to collect a detailed account of his experiences living day to day in these camps, but he also walked out with many pieces of wisdom, wisdom that I believe is pivotal in the world of human psychology. Dr. Frankl found that those with a sense of purpose in life are more likely to thrive, regardless of the context and setting.

When one can attribute meaning to their suffering and find purpose through their pain, this provides a platform for resilience, courage and even physical health.