Finding Meaning in Suffering

Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet

Suffering is seen by many as exclusively negative. Something we should avoid, and preferably reduce as much as possible. But perspectives from existential philosophy and psychology show that suffering is not only a necessary part of life. It can also give us a deeper understanding of who we are and contribute to a more complete life.

One of the greatest advances humanity has made is to reduce suffering. But just as physical pain is a signal from the body that something is wrong, suffering can be an existential message. That something fundamental is gnawing at us. That there are questions we should confront. In existential philosophy, there is a long tradition of seeing suffering as potentially liberating. Kierkegaard was the first to take the concept of anxiety seriously, describing it as ‘the vertigo of freedom’. We experience anxiety because we have the freedom to choose. Anxiety is baked into our freedom to choose. So accepting suffering as something to expect makes you own your suffering through an active choice. Not as something good. But something we have to deal with.

Furchert summarized Kierkegaard’s view of suffering through three stages. The first stage is to admit to yourself that you are suffering and that it is personally relevant to you. This could be the death of a close person, losing a job, or feeling your life is meaningless. This can lead to stage two, which is internalised suffering, where you have accepted and decided to bear the suffering. And finally, existential suffering, where you can let go and move on. Only by admitting and then accepting the suffering can one finally let go of it. 

An active attitude towards suffering as something transformative can also be seen in the root of the German word leiden, or the Norwegian lidelse, where lide originally meant “to move on, go, travel”. This shows that suffering was not always seen as something to be avoided at all costs. It is a journey everyone has to take, but only those who actively deal with the suffering grow from it. To choose suffering is to start a journey.

If one is only concerned with pleasure or happiness, suffering can be devastating. Then suffering will be exclusively negative and will often lead to bitterness instead. But making an active choice to confront suffering can make suffering meaningful and transformative. Kierkegaard called it internalised suffering, and the idea lives on in existential psychology. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom insists that we must accept what he calls the basic existential features of being human. Inspired by Heidegger and other existential philosophers, Yalom describes mortality, freedom, existential isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness of life as these basic existential features.

In contemporary psychology, the idea of growth through acceptance of existential suffering is supported by the concept of post-traumatic growth (as a counterpart to post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD). Here it is shown that facing a crisis can, like an earthquake, destroy the unstable pillars that build up our worldview. But it also gives us the opportunity to build more secure and stable pillars. This psychological growth can manifest itself as appreciating life more, having more intense relationships with other people, discovering new possibilities, gaining a greater existential awareness, and feeling stronger on a personal plane, a certainty that you can handle the hardships of life. This is most likely attained if there is someone by your side to accompany you through the crisis or suffering. This could be a close friend, family, counselor, priest, or a professional psychologist. They won’t resolve the situation for you. But their presence can make the suffering easier to bear. That doesn’t mean that suffering can’t be devastating or that one should just embrace it. Rather, suffering is a constant we cannot avoid. So if we try to avoid it, bury it or hide it away rather than accept that life contains suffering, then we give away the chance to learn about what it means to be human.

So I think you have to have two thoughts in your head at once – suffering as terrible and as transformative. Because we should not forget that there is a lot of suffering that is too great and terrible to bear alone. At the same time, the only way to grow from suffering is to accept it as a gateway to getting closer to the foundations of our existence. And then using the visit to create meaning.  


Schnell, T. (2022). Suffering as a Meaningful Choice. In Anne Austad and Lars Johan Danbolt (eds.) Ta Vare. A book on diakonia, pastoral care and existential health. Festschrift to Hans Stifoss-Hanssen (pp. 3-15). VID.

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