What is the meaning of suffering? It is an ancient question. It is the theme for the entire Book of Job in the Hebrew Testament. It is one of the universal questions of humanity.
That question seeks to understand the very core of our human experience. None of us escapes suffering. It comes in many forms, and in many dimensions. M. Scott Peck, MD starts his book The Road Less Traveled with this three word sentence, “Life is difficult.” And that’s the truth.
In this video you will meet Marine combat veteran Travis Williams. It will become painfully clear to you as you watch that his suffering is deep. He is wounded in a way that does not show in exterior scars, or amputations, but his wounds are as real and go as deep as any physical combat wound.
And it goes back to a moment in time when he was in Iraq with his squad on a desert road.
You see, Williams was in one vehicle with his squad when he was randomly ordered to move back to another vehicle immediately behind the one he was in with the rest of his squad. It seemed just a routine, matter-of-fact order from his superiors. He got out of the vehicle and looked back at his friends and said, in that casual manner that you have with you brothers in combat, “See you guys on the flip side.”
He got into the following vehicle and they continued down the road.
Only moments later, the vehicle he had been in only mere minutes before, disappeared in a massive explosion and fireball. It had gone over an immense IED bomb. The vehicle and everyone in it, all of his friends, were turned instantaneously into so much smoke and debris.
How does one deal with such a random reality? Why wasn’t he in that vehicle with his brothers? Why should he survive and not them? What weird “lottery” governed that they should all die, but not him?
Why was he the lone survivor?
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That is suffering of immense depth. But it is a kind of suffering that is common to combat veterans, and others.
In reality, all of us who have been in combat know those questions. We have all asked ourselves: How is it that I’m alive and my friends aren’t? What is it about millimeters of distance, or simple location, or nanoseconds of time, that allowed me to live while my friends died in the middle of that firefight or that mortar and artillery bombardment?
It seems so random, so inexplicable. Those facts may be beyond our understanding, but they are clearly not beyond our suffering. How do we find meaning in the chaos of such events and their aftermaths?
That is the struggle we all must face.
How do we find meaning in suffering? The Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl asked those same questions. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning he discusses how in the midst of such intense suffering, he was somehow able to reflect on that question, and one of his conclusions was, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Of course, this is not easy, but it is as real a possibility as the suffering that randomly comes our way is real.
We are all challenged by our life circumstances to find meaning in our suffering. To find, ultimately, the meaning of our lives. Marine veteran, Travis Williams, is a man in search of this meaning, as you will see in this video.
One of the most important survival mechanisms for us is to choose to keep faith in the future. The past has a way of holding us down, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in it. The past is real, but it is past. Choosing our attitude in any given circumstance is a matter of the present moment. We choose our attitude toward our circumstances in the immediacy of each moment and each day. We can choose to remain burdened by the past, where our suffering has its roots and, in doing so, we only suffer more.
Or, we can choose to accept the fact that shit happened, but I survived. Now, what can I do to give meaning to that suffering and to my life? It is that attitude that is rooted in a faith in the future.
Finding a purpose in one’s life is the best way to live with the realities of the past and our suffering. With a purpose beyond ourselves, a purpose that involves making a difference in the lives of others, those familiar to us and those we do not even know, gives our lives meaning. Meaning and purpose help us live with the realities of our suffering.
To be sure, this is not easy. Indeed, it is very difficult. But, as Viktor Frankl discovered in the depths of his own suffering, there remains within all of us an inner reality that is greater than our suffering. It is an innate desire to love.
That is the real power.
It is in that desire to love and be loved that we are able to find the small light in the often seemingly endless darkness of our suffering. It is this capacity within us that gives us the ability to say “Yes” in the midst of the negativity of suffering. That is the attitude that helps us find meaning in our suffering, that turns it into purpose and, ultimately, gives meaning to our lives.
The Veterans Site sends its respect and its prayers out to Travis Williams and all those who are caught up in the suffering of their wartime memories.
If you are suffering, we ask that you reach out for the help of others. This has a double effect. It will not only be helpful to you, but it helps those others to come out of themselves and find meaning and purpose in their lives by serving you. It is in serving one another that we find meaning and purpose.
We will never escape suffering, but we can walk through it together. Semper Fi! We are and will remain, Fratres Aeterni, brothers and sisters forever.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.