On Suffering and Joy

In Victor Frankl’s treatise ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he compares suffering to a gas. It will fill any space it’s given.

The 1946 book, first published under the title ‘From Death-camp to Existentialism‘ chronicled Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In it he examines the effects of extreme suffering on the human psyche and outlines the early formation of his life’s work as a psychiatry, namely his method of ‘logotherapy‘ a process by which a patient identifies a purpose in life. At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

Frankl identified that inside the concentration camp, almost any circumstance, great or small, suffering or joy could fill it. For example, a starving, half frozen prisoner of war, deprived of all freedoms, dignity and comforts and driven to work in degrading conditions, can pause and note a beautiful sunset, feeling a moment of joy.

Conversely, a man, well fed, free, warm, wealthy and honoured could feel intense existential suffering for want of any sense of life meaning.

So is the human condition, both fragile and curious.

The Giver

The Giver [1993] is a Newbery Medal winning novel by Lois Lowry set in a utopian society in which all pain and uncertainty have been removed. The novel follows a boy named Jonas from the age of 11 to 12, the year of his coming of age.

In Jonas’ world, society has eliminated pain and strife by removing personal choice and unpredictability. The Community is structured around routines; work detail and family units are delegated rather than chosen. Normal human desires and impulses are repressed to maintain social harmony. Children are conceived artificially and given to family units in an ordered manner. Firm rules of etiquette control daily life.

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As the story progresses , the society is revealed to be far less ideal than first implied. Jonas’ world lacks any color, the people have no memory or history, they experience a controlled climate and known nothing beyond the limits of their own community with its ordered terrain. While the community has created structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality, in the process, they also have eradicated all emotional depth from their lives.

The year all the children are given their work delegation,¬† Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the Community history. He is the one the Community must draw upon to access the wisdom of history to aid the Community’s decision making.

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Jonas struggles with all the new memories and emotions introduced to him, from snowflakes to sunsets, to war, suffering and pain. For the first time he is exposed to questions of good, evil, in-between, and whether it is even possible to have one without the other.

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Like other great utopian/ dystopian novels such as 1984 and Hunger Games, The Giver explores the boundaries of human freedom, the necessity of pain and emotion to the human experience and the insidious claims of government which would claim to be acting in the best interest of the people while limiting their freedoms.

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Many of the things we wished we didn’t have to deal with in fact define and refine our lives. Maybe a utopia without chaos or pain is not what we want or need.

Unpredictability, our passions, our memories. They all give us the greatest of pains and the greatest of joys but they also bestow us with the wisdom and memories, to truly live.

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