Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Alternate Activity 2: Meaning in Suffering

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Newsprint, markers, and tape
  • Handout 1, What Now?
  • Pens/pencils

Preparation for Activity

  • If you have done the Welcoming and Entering activity, make sure participants have their copies of Handout 1 with their notes about how they would respond to challening situations.
  • If needed, copy Handout 1 for all participants. Plan on a few extra minutes up-front for the youth to respond to the challenging situations presented on the handout.
  • Write on newsprint, and post:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. - Viktor Frankl, 20th-century Viennese Jewish writer

Description of Activity

Distribute Handout 1 and pens/pencils, and invite the youth to take a few minutes to respond, in writing, to some of the challenging situations provided on the handout. Allow the youth a few minutes to respond on their handouts. (Or, if the group has done the Welcoming and Entering activity, ask everyone to find their copies of Handout 1 with their notes.)

Now, ask for a volunteer to read the quotation you have posted on newsprint, or, read it aloud yourself. Invite discussion: Do youth agree with it? Why, or why not?

Tell the group Victor Frankl was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who created an approach to psychotherapy based on insights from his experiences in concentration camp. Explain that logos is a Greek word for "meaning." Explain that logotherapy rests on six assumptions:

1. The human being is an entity consisting of body, mind, and spirit.

2. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable.

3. People have a will to find meaning in life.

4. People have freedom under all circumstances to activate the will to find meaning.

5. Life has a demand quality to which people must respond if decisions are to be meaningful.

6. The individual is unique.

Share this summary:

These assumptions say every human is a unique combination of body, mind, and spirit. Our lives are composed of unique experiences. We make meaning out of these experiences, which help us make future decisions and more experiences. Every person always has freedom to find meaning in any and all experiences. Finding meaning in our lives is our primary motivation for living.

Now share this excerpt from Frankl's most famous book, Man's Search for Meaning:

And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging each other up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife...

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man[kind] can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man[kind] is through love and in love....

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. ... Man(kind) can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress....

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Ask participants:

  • How does this reading strike you? Are you convinced there is meaning in suffering?
  • Does finding meaning in suffering lessen the suffering?
  • Could it be dangerous to say there is meaning in suffering? How so? Does this mean we require suffering, for our lives to have meaning? Are we saying suffering is necessary, or at least, worthwhile?
  • Does the idea that suffering has meaning lessen the responsibility of those who caused the suffering? Does it let them off the hook?
  • How do you think Frankl's survival of genocide during the Holocaust affected his theory?

Invite the youth to refer to their individual copies of Handout 1, What Now? Ask them how their answers might differ now. Allow a few moments.

Remind the group that Frankl survived extreme suffering and emerged with his spirit strengthened. Ask: Does it always work that way for everyone? Affirm that there can be times when anyone may feel they have too much pain to bear. That does not mean one's spirit is weak or faulty. In those times, we need to turn to the supports that can help our spirits stay strong. Religion might be one of these. Friends, family, and loved ones can help. It is important to reach out to others when we need support and to be there for others when they need support.

Suggest that the youth, too, might have within them the strength of a Viktor Frankl, the ability to discover the power of love in times of suffering.