The Meaning in Suffering
I am the master of my fate I am the captain of my soul” -From Invictus by William Ernest Henry
Clint Eastwood’s stirring tribute to Nelson Mandela’s moral grandeur is brilliantly depicted in the recent film “Invictus” and illustrates how to find meaning in suffering-not always the easiest thing to do.
The movie concerns Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, which the country’s blacks hated as a symbol of apartheid.
Mandela’s practical wisdom is demonstrated when he reaches out to the Springbox’s captain Francois Pienaar, who, like the rest of his teammates, has been in despair and too disheartened to believe that they can ever be victorious.
Mandela inspires Pienaar, (who in turn inspires his team mates) to play his best at the World Cup in rugby in spite of seemingly unsurmountable odds.
However, the essence of the film’s existential message is that human beings are happiest when they are concerned with something or someone other than themselves. There must be a feeling of work to do, a job to complete, a task, a mission in life waiting for him or her exclusively to be actualized.
Upon visiting Robben Island prison where Mandela was held for almost thirty years sleeping on the floor in a tiny cell, Pienaar tries to imagine what it must have been like living in such insufferable conditions, yet managing to emerge from the despair with such self-mastery and personal triumph.
There’s a whole body of psychiatric literature about people living in deplorable conditions and yet managing to find meaning and happiness in their lives. Victor Frankl, the renowned existential psychotherapist, and a Holocaust survivor who lost his family in Auschwitz, says despair can be explained by the simple mathematical equation D = S – M , meaning despair equals suffering without meaning.
I can offer two examples: my father and my husband’s father. They both spent time on Makronisos, the small island off the eastern coast of Attica, on which the Greek state imprisoned and tortured people who were either actual or suspected Communists.
Both men witnessed unspeakable things there. My father’s post-traumatic stress contributed to his living in an existential vacuum because he perceived his experience to be devoid of meaning. However, my husband’s father went on to live an emotionally successful life. He would say that the years he spent on Makronisos were his happiest and most meaningful because of the people he met there, many of whom became influential politicians, professionals, businessmen and members of the intelligentsia.
Frankl says that the moment individuals can see meaning in their suffering they can mould it into an achievement. They can turn their tragedies into personal triumph.