The daily news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings back many painful memories. The scenes of Russia’s deliberate bombings of hospitals and schools, and the relentless shelling of residential areas fill my heart with sadness and rage, because the United Nation and NATO cannot do anything to stop a madman from destroying cities and disrupting millions of innocent lives without any provocation (Deutsche Welle, 2022; Wille, 2020).
Are we still a civilized people governed by the rule of law? Have we regressed to barbaric savages in a jungle? Why can’t all the progress in psychology, education, and political science prevent ruthless dictators from murdering innocent people?
More specifically, how can positive psychology help when ordinary people go about their daily business of going to school, enjoying family time, or doing the things they enjoy, but in a split second, find that their happiness and dreams gone up in smoke and reduced to ashes?
As a War Baby, I Know How it Feels to Live Under Attack and Occupation by an Enemy
I feel their pain deeply because I was born in the year when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China and committed the Nanking massacre, which made Japan the enemy of the international community (Dedes, 2020).
For a period of six weeks the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army had a killing orgy, murdering over 300,000 people, with widespread rape and looting. Millions of refugees escaped to safer areas before the army seized control of Nanking. My wife’s family were among the displaced.
Living in Tianjin did not spare me from the horrors of war. Just imagine that you are a little boy (about five years old) and you witness a group of Japanese solders bursting into your house, threatening your family with bayonets, and ordering your family to vacate your residence to the Japanese. Worse still, you aren’t even allowed to take your belongings, not even your favourite toys.
Naturally you would feel shocked and angry. Deep down in your child’s heart, you already know that what they did is wrong and unfair, but no one has the power to stop them.
The same night, all my family had to move out, and I was sent to a relative’s house alone to spend the night in their basement on a wooden board infested with lice. Added to my trauma of being ejected from my own house by force, I felt abandoned and thrown into a dark pit to rot.
This horrible experience might be the seed of my lifelong interest in existentialism and resistance to the naïve idea that the world is safe and sweet. It may also be the reason why I felt the calling to learn more about human nature and how to end suffering.
Based on my own experience and all my knowledge about human nature, I have come to the conclusion that the enterprise of pursing happiness only for oneself is doomed to fail, because we are more interconnected as a human family, and many are suffering. Even when I try to enjoy my food and simple pleasure, the sight and sound of human suffering in Ukraine still fills my heart with grief.
The Horrors of the Vietnam War and the “Boat People”
Human history is a bloody one. Not too long ago, we witnessed the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Further back, we had the Vietnam war, Korean war, and World War II.
One only needs to watch the film Apocalypse Now Redux (Coppola, 2001) to have a sense of the madness and atrocities of the Vietnam war. It tells a powerful story showing how ordinary people are capable of doing very horrible things to other humans. During that war, so many innocent people were killed or wounded, not including the soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Perhaps, the following photo of the naked “napalm girl” visually tells the pointless brutality of the Vietnam war. Kim Phucin was only 9 years old in 1972 when she was photographed, screaming and running in pain after a U.S. commander ordered South Vietnamese planes to drop napalm bombs near her village.
Burns covered about half of her body, but miraculously she was able to find refuge and healing. Eventually, she grew up to be a beautiful woman with forgiveness and joy in her heart. She has devoted her life to be a motivation speaker in Canada (Stockton, 2017).
Her story restores some faith in humanity and gives us hope that most of the refugees have the resilience to survive and thrive regardless of the trauma they have gone through. I can bear witness that she is just one of the many success stories of refugees from Vietnam.
In the early 80s, while I was still a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, I was personally involved in helping hundreds of “boat people” to resettle. Some of them even came to our home each week for fellowship and Bible study; they were able to share their stories with us while their children played with our children.
Some were raped by the pirates. Some witnessed their family members killed by North Vietnamese solders. Most of them had endured terrible ordeals in their escape from Vietnam, as shown in the following photo (Do & Tran, 2021).
One may wonder what has happened to these “boat people”? I am pleased to say that with their work ethics and willingness to do anything to rebuild a new life in Canada, most of the people that came through my house (as seen in the next photo) have done very well. This picture shows a gathering of refugees, sponsors, local families, and foreign students in my home for some special celebration.
I can provide a long list of accomplishments of these “boat people”, but this may embarrass some Canadians who have not gone through the ordeal by fire and water. Here, I just want to mention the Minh van family. Minh van’s sponsor wanted him to work in his furniture store, but Minh told me that he really wanted to start his own business.
After some negotiation with his sponsor, Minh was allowed to start a small booth in Peterborough’s farmers market, selling home made Vietnamese spring rolls. On some Saturdays, I was able to see how he and his wife operated their business with their broken English but with inviting smiles.
From such a humble beginning, with hard work and resourcefulness, they were able to grow a successful business. Minh’s whole family are in this picture. Years later, their daughter became a pharmacist, and all their sons also became professionals – chartered accountant, optometrist, and physiotherapist. Most amazingly, the tiny booth in farmers market has become a well-established Chinese grocery store as show in the photo of Minh’s Chinese Grocery.
Their success did not come by chance. A great deal of hard work, sacrifice, and discipline have gone into it. They did not complain or protest but put their hands to the plow and turn a desert into a productive farm. Their success provides support of my brand of existential positive psychology – flourishing comes from overcoming suffering.
The Best Possible Life of Flourishing Through Suffering
There is already a great deal of research supporting my suffering hypothesis (Wong, 2021a). More recent research evidence shows that our psychological immune system is stronger than we thought (Aknin et al., 2021; Bonanno, 2021). We can even become better and stronger through suffering according to the new science of existential positive psychology (EPP or PP2.0; Wong, Mayer, & Arslan, 2021), and happiness is possible even in palliative care and for chronical pain patients (Wong, 2022; Wong & Yu, 2021).
In fact, it is an impossibility to have a life full of happiness without suffering as illustrated by the story of the historic Buddha (Lopez, 2020). Recent research has supported this hypothesis, such as research on tragic optimism (Leung et al., 2021) and self-transcendence (Wong, Mayer & Arslan, 2021).
The following principles represent the 7 principles of flourishing through suffering:
- Accept life as it is with gratitude.
- Believe in creating a better future with help from Providence.
- Commit to worthy goals and a life purpose.
- Discover the hidden treasures by digging deeper.
- Enjoy and value life.
- Fear (God) and obey boundaries.
- Love others as yourself.
A great deal has been written about the above principles. For example, acceptance is the key not only to a meaningful life (Wong, 1998), but also to resilience (Wong 2013; Wong et al., 2006).
The first five principles are the pathways to resilience (Wong, 2016a). The last two principles represent the two greatest commandments taught by Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40); they are the universal principles of spiritual happiness of love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-26). I plan to write a book about these principles of positive mental health.
Suffering is unavoidable and inescapable. The only way to survival and flourishing is learning how to overcome suffering. According to the first Noble truth, life is suffering.
In addition to our inner demons, there are also systemic problems and evil people who can make our lives miserable. History has shown that neither the psychology of happiness nor scientific progress can automatically eliminate suffering. However, there are ways one can overcome and transform suffering, but it requires sacrifice, discipline, and collaborative efforts.
Practicing all the above seven principles daily will transform you into a self-transcendent person. The psychology of the last century may be described as self psychology, with its research agenda focusing on such themes as internal locus of control, self efficacy, self esteem, self-actualization etc. I propose that the new paradigm of psychology for the 21st century is self-transcendence. This is partly dictated by the changes in society and partly by the new trends in research.
The concept of self-transcendence is not new. Frankl’s (1946/1985) concept of the search for meaning revolves around self-transcendence, Maslow’s (1971) revised need hierarchy placed transcendence as the crowing glory of human development. Recently, Kaufman (2020) has extended Maslow’s work and I have extended Frankl’s work (Wong 2016b, 2021b; Wong et al., 2021).
Until there is a re-orientation from ego to others, from self-enhancement to self-transcendence, we will not be able to end suffering and transform it to flourishing. We will also not be able to experience selfless happiness. However, self-transcendence can become our second nature, when we are practicing the activities listed in the previous three sections.
May we catch the vision of self-transcendence. Let our hearts be moved by compassion for the suffering masses. Let our souls be set aflame by the passion to save people from the bondage of suffering into the spiritual happiness of love, joy, and peace. We trust that not only refugees, but all people can become contributing citizens and live productive, fulfilling lives, if they are willing to pay the price of living a responsible and meaningful life.
Aknin, L., Zaki, J., & Dunn, E. (2021, July 4). The pandemic did not affect mental health the way you think. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/covid-19-did-not-affect-mental-health-way-you-think/619354/
Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The end of trauma: How the new science of resilience is changing how we think about PTSD. Basic Books.
Coppola, F. F. (Director). (2001). Apocalypse now redux [Film]. Francis Ford Coppola and Kim Aubry.
Dedes, I. (2020, December 22). The massacre that made Japan the enemy of the International Community. The Medium. https://medium.datadriveninvestor.com/the-massacre-that-made-japan-the-enemy-of-the-international-community-12027bf847b4
Deutsche Welle. (2022, March 9). Russia admits to use of conscripts in Ukraine invasion — as it happened. https://www.dw.com/en/russia-admits-to-use-of-conscripts-in-ukraine-invasion-as-it-happened/a-61059223
Do, A., & Tran, M. (2021, September 3). As children of Vietnamese refugees, we believe Trudeau must do more for Afghan migrants and refugees. Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2021/09/02/as-children-of-vietnamese-refugees-we-believe-trudeau-must-do-more-for-afghan-migrants-and-refugees.html
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Washington Square Press. (First published in 1946)
Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. Tarcher Perigee.
Leung, M. M., Arslan, G., & Wong, P. T. P. (2021). Tragic optimism as a buffer against COVID-19 suffering and the psychometric properties of a brief version of the life attitudes scale (LAS-B). Frontiers, 12, 646843. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.646843
Lopez, D. S. (2020, February 19). Buddha: Founder of Buddhism. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Buddha-founder-of-Buddhism
Maslow, A. (1971). Farther reaches of human nature. McGraw-Hill.
Stockton, R. (2017, June 6). The true story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the “Napalm Girl” All That is Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/napalm-girl
Wille, B. (2020, December 17). Why are Russians paying for bombing schools in Syria? Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/17/why-are-russians-paying-bombing-schools-syria
Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Erlbaum.
Wong, P. T. P. (2013, October). Acceptance and well-being: A meaning-management perspective [Invited lecture]. Presented at Lotus Hospice Care Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan.
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Wong, P. T. P., Mayer, C.-H., & Arslan, G. (Eds.). (2021). COVID-19 and Existential Positive Psychology (PP 2.0): The new science of self-transcendence [Special Issue]. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/14988/covid-19-and-existential-positive-psychology-pp20-the-new-science-of-self-transcendence
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