Meaning-Focused Therapy

Meaning centered counseling Lecture No 7

The Meaning of Suffering

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D. C.Psych
Tyndale University College, Toronto, Ontario


  • People are always responsible for fulfilling the three categories of values or meanings: creative, experiential and attitudinal.
  • Creative value through work, experiential value through love and attitudinal value through suffering
  • Every situation holds out the opportunity for the actualization of values.
  • Hobbel: “Life is not anything; it is only the opportunity for something” (p.113). The meaning of our life depends on how we respond to each opportunity
  • “Human life can be fulfilled not only in creating and enjoying, but also in suffering” (p.106)

Death and suffering endow life with meaning

  • Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich: “he grows far beyond himself in the last hours of his life; he attains an inner greatness which retroactively hallows all of his previous life.” (p.106)
  • “Not only the sacrifice of one’s life can give life meaning; life can reach nobility even as founders on the rocks.” (p.106).
  • The problems with the cult of success and happiness.
  • The unfinished symphonies are among the finest.
  • Suffering and the tension of moving away from it inwardly enables us to envision some ideal or value and teaches us what we ought not to be and what we ought to be.
  • Suffering teaches us the wisdom of repenting and living out this repentance. Repentance has the power of undoing in the moral sense. It permits the culprit to start afresh.
  • Grieving enables one to preserve an inner time with a loved one – to perpetuate the past in the present.

The need for enduring suffering

  • “Suffering is intended to guard man from apathy, from psychic rigor mortis. As long as we suffer we remain psychically alive. In fact, we mature in suffering, grow because of it – it makes us richer and stronger.” (p.109)
  • “Narcotization is spiritual anesthesia” (p.110)
  • “Spiritual anesthesia can lead to a kind of spiritual death. Consistent suppression of intrinsically meaningful emotional impulses because of their possible unpleasurable tone ends in the killings of a person’s inner life” (p.111)
  • Melancholia anesthetic represents the worse kind of despair – The patient cannot feel anything, becomes emotionally cold and dead.
  • “Suffering and trouble belong to life as much as fate and death. None of these can be subtracted from life without destroying its meaning” (p.111)

The importance of attitudinal values

  • Attitudinal values are relevant in suffering when the sufferers are resigned to the inevitable fate.
  • Goethe: “There is no predicament that we cannot ennoble either by doing or enduring (p.112)
  • Confronting any situation, we either shape fate or endure it. We try to change the situation as long as it is still possible, or endure the fate with a heroic attitude.
  • Enduring unavoidable and uncontrollable suffering constitutes a moral achievement.
  • “On the one hand, people can be “sick” without suffering in the proper sense. On the other hand, there is a suffering beyond all sickness, a fundamental human suffering, the suffering which belongs to human life by the very nature and meaning of life” (p.113)
  • Dostoevsky feared only one thing: that he might not be worthy of his torment.
  • “The approach of death may draw forth the ultimate capacities from a man who has hitherto wasted his life” (p.115).
  • “The patient, as the sufferer, is superior to the doctor” (p.116).
  • Accepting suffering and death with courage and tranquility is a true achievement.
  • One of the main purposes of logotherapy and meaning-centered counselling is to increase clients’ capacity for enduring and accepting suffering heroically.