IMHO, this famous saying speaks nonsense! Consider that between preschool and first grade I watched my mother slowly wither away and then die from depression after a painful divorce. Consider that my sister recently succumbed to alcoholic liver disease after drinking against her pain for decades.
Consider that I’ve watched friends destroy themselves in various direct and indirect ways, or that countless patients of mine suffered from self-inflicted wounds and diseases that finally killed them. If you weigh all that evidence (plus any of your own you’d care to add to the mix), you’ll recognize that life overwhelms many people; they cannot endure the hardship and pass from this world in misery. Where is the evidence to suggest that the universe serves up only ordeals we can handle?
On the other hand, there is no trauma or loss so severe it cannot be transmuted into something valuable. The fact that many people never effect such alchemy does not negate the truth that many others do. Transcendence of suffering is always within our reach, though we often don’t know how to grasp it.
Once I viewed a YouTube clip that showed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl talking with a young man afflicted with quadriplegia. This youth described in convincing terms how he gained meaning and insight through his devastating injury. Perhaps only a few paralyzed patients embrace their fate with this level of acceptance, but at least one did, so it must be possible.
On my personal blog I’ve recently started a series about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT practitioners feel great fondness for Viktor Frankl, by the way. His most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes the inhuman conditions he endured during his interment in a Nazi concentration camp. The prisoners suffered cruelty and privation that far exceeded the trials most of us complain about in developed nations today. And yet, when Frankl saw an opportunity for escape, he deliberately chose to remain so he could look after his patients in the rudimentary medical ward.
With that act, he ceased to be a prisoner and became a voluntary servant of humankind. Are we not told that Jesus elected to suffer and die for the benefit of humanity? Frankl adopted a Christlike stance and sacrificed his own safety and welfare in service of others. A miserable predicament became a source of Grace.
During an early session, my ACT therapist told me about Frankl’s discovery of meaning in what most would consider an unbearable situation. The story affected me very little at first. For years I’d looked at myself as irreparably damaged by the despair, bereavement, chaos, and cruelty of my formative years. Frankl’s tale sounded like a rare exception to how people ordinarily respond, and I assumed his upbringing must have been exceptionally supportive. In short, I imagined him as almost a different species: the kind of human produced by a perfect family. Note that I dreamt up this myth without any evidence one way or the other about the man’s childhood.
After a year or two I finally broke down and read Man’s Search for Meaning, and I finally got the point. By that time I was starting to release my grip on the inflexible belief that my personality had been ruined at an early age. An inner transformation of cruel circumstances into tender and meaningful experiences was manifesting in my own life. Since my childhood surely counts as traumatic, I had to abandon the conviction that early mistreatment dooms a person to a lifetime of pointless suffering.
Although my upbringing exposed me to more loss and danger than most, I grant its advantages were not insignificant. My father’s intelligence was passed on to me genetically, and his love of learning came to me as he informally taught me about science, history, and politics over his morning coffee. Although my dad’s household was otherwise dismal, every summer I spent time in other settings where there was more love and freedom. And I’ve been told that in my first year or two of life, before the divorce and my mother’s depression, my mom treated me with boundless tender affection.
But is it not the case that every person is exposed to both positive and negative influences during childhood? I’ve met many people over the years who came from horribly damaged households, and every one of them had unique strengths. And each had enjoyed at least some positive childhood experiences. Every person’s task in life is to build on assets and transform deficits, and we each will find both in our ledger.
So no, God does not protect us from being crushed by fate. But everyone has the potential to bear up under life’s pressure. We need guidance, support, and perseverance, but transcendence can be achieved. In my own case I see this especially clearly in the aftermath of a recent painful and life-threatening illness, which continues to create discomfort and limitation. Despite a situation that might once have reduced me to quivering defeat, I stayed fairly upbeat throughout by maintaining a perspective of open-hearted curiosity. I can honestly say that the experience feels positive, on balance, despite the hours of painful vomiting, the indignity of prolonged medical procedures, the uncertainty about my future, and the possible demise of an acupuncture practice I’ve been building for two years. If this wounded soul can rise above the mire of suffering, I believe anyone can, with practice and proper instruction.
Ever since the Enlightenment, Western humanity has been operating blindly. As Christian theology retreated before material science, people were left with few wise resources to help them cope with hardship. Only during the past fifty years did the West begin to awaken to Eastern meditative traditions, which have consistently offered effective recipes for transforming suffering. These practices do not depend critically on metaphysical claims that contradict conventional scientific theory, and so have helped fill the gap opened by a weakened Christianity. (It may not be coincidental that these practices first originated in India, where the populace has a long history of privation.) But until recently in the West, instead of wisdom we’ve been served up a hodgepodge of unproven psychological treatments and potent but ineffective drugs. Eastern philosophies don’t appeal to everyone, and choosing among the numerous strains can be confusing.
Fortunately, the scene is improving. To my eye ACT is one of the most promising and well-developed therapeutic approaches currently available, though there are many hopeful emerging paths. With these techniques, which combine the best of Western and Eastern knowledge, more and more of us will begin to find hardship enriching rather than merely punishing.
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Last reviewed: 20 Feb 2012