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Sushama Kirtikar



The defenselessness of a naked body, the baring of an anguished heart, and the illumination of an enlightened mind are but cameos of the unabashed writings of Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, in his book "Man's Search for Meaning." It is a potent rendition of his first-hand experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It is an even more commanding revelation of his insights as he gleaned meaning from the singular pit of horror that was the Holocaust. Yes, 'meaning': like the rising of the Phoenix from its ashes.

Frankl gently directs us to look for the questions that life asks us and the challenges it poses us. Each one of us has the answer and the ability within us, he suggests, even in the most ominous circumstances. We can choose to face adversity squarely and meet suffering on a level playing field. Instead of feeling defeated, we can learn to garner the higher meaning in it for us. Hold on, I heard that sigh. Before you brush your hands off and walk away, please wait. In our personal lexicon of life, it is inconceivable for many of us to see how meaning and suffering can coexist. You might say the agenda of meaning does not rhyme with the agenda of suffering. I agree the two seem dichotomous. But are they polar opposites? Let us set aside our personal hubris (you know the kind that says, "I know better; don't mess with my belief system") and humble ourselves to the notion that perhaps other wiser, enlightened individuals may have insights that could be of value to us. I am asking for a temporary suspension of disbelief. That is all. Come sit back down.

Recently, I asked a client, "So, why do you think you had to have this experience of losing your spouse, at this time in your life?" Shocked disgust would be the best way to describe her initial reaction. She looked at me blankly, and I was pretty sure she was not going to return to counseling again. Instead, she paused, stunned at first, then breaking from her tormented grief, looked up from her tear-stained face, and through misty eyes brimming with sadness, spoke softly, "I don't know what you mean. I really don't think there could be a reason for this sorrow. But (long pause), I will think about it." She was as sincere as sunlight. Despite her incredulity mixed with revulsion at the audacity of my question, she was willing to consider the possibility of a personal lesson to be learned from her experience; a lesson that was over and above the grief to be overcome. That to me is pure, shining courage.

A significant number of people have stated that an immense adversity has forced them to learn life lessons, be it humility, or entrepreneurship, or independence, or unconditional love, or forgiveness, or tolerance and many such stellar qualities. It has compelled them to become finer individuals and they have shone because of (not in spite of) that incredibly painful experience. For some mind-boggling reason, personal growth seems to come out of personal pain and sorrow. Dr. William Breitbart, chief of psychiatry at Sloan-Kettering in NYC, says it elegantly in Psychology Today (August 2009), "If life is always smooth, we're never challenged. Suffering is probably necessary to make us grow. The need to find meaning is a primary force, but we may need to be confronted with our own mortality for that to occur." Notice how the words suffering, necessity and growth all go hand in hand.

When life throws us a curve ball, it is natural to duck, cower and whimper, "Why me?" In all honesty, the question very well could be "Why not me?" Complaining about our ill luck gets us nowhere. It is more beneficial to take stock of what is happening, recognize our emotional reactions, process and release them and then ask, "How do I respond to this? What do I learn from this? How am I supposed to grow from this? What quality as a person am I missing that I need to develop in this lifetime?" We begin by accepting reality and then begin to fish for that pesky, amorphous thing called 'meaning.' It is not easy, far from it. But as people who have survived incredible tragedies teach us, impossible it isn't.

According to the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, "He who has a why for life can bear with any how." Making sense (the why) of our pain and suffering (the how) makes life bearable. That is a priceless gift.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at

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