In the introduction to Man’s Search for Meaning by Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, Gordon W. Allport writes, “It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying….Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes” (11). While Allport is reflecting on Frankl’s conclusion that all suffering has the capacity for meaning, Allport’s words and Frankl’s argument become far more dizzying when we test their application to modern day atrocity.
Frankl’s training as psychiatrist before the genocide informed how he experienced his imprisonment in Auschwitz. While in medical school, he gave his first presentation on Logotherapy—the theory that all life has meaning and that a human being is motivated by his/her “will to meaning.” After he graduated and started practicing medicine in 1930 (just eight years prior to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria), he focused his attention on helping prevent suicide. The key, according to Frankl, was helping his patients identify their will to meaning.
WWII put Frankl’s prewar focus on suicide prevention and giving life meaning to the test. Arrested in 1942, he spent the next three years in various concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau. Even in the face of utter horror, Frankl searched for reasons to live. “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer,” Frankl explains, “he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task…His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (99). Frankl argued that hope in any form had the potential to infuse meaning into one’s suffering and protect her/him from despair. Thus, for Frankl, hope was the meaning of life. And to find meaning in suffering was to safeguard against despair and empower someone to be strong.
But finding hope is no easy task. In light of Frankl’s writing, let us explore the following question: Does the suffering of the Eastern Congolese have meaning? To better frame our inquiry, we must first consider the ongoing violence in Eastern Congo. As a result of two international wars (from 1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2003), fighting between foreign and domestic militia groups, and the exploitation of Congo’s abundant natural resources (including tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold), more than 5.4 million Congolese have died and over 2 million have been displaced. Children are habitually abducted and/or recruited by militia groups and rape is more than a daily occurrence. In short, the Eastern Congolese experience pain and tragedy in alarming numbers and in shocking frequency. To claim that the suffering of millions of Congolese has meaning seems both insensitive and illogical. And yet, if we consider the meaning of suffering from Frankl’s point of view—suffering has meaning if it includes hope—we learn an important lesson about how to help victims of violence, genocide and atrocity.
It is the international community’s responsibility to help those who are suffering at the hands of oppressive, autocratic, and totalitarian regimes. Medical supplies, clothing, shelter, and food can help alleviate the immediate needs of those in danger. But, if we really want to help, we must consider the types of aide we can provide in addition to the corporeal. Or, to put it more succinctly, we should also ask, How can we give hope to those who have experienced mind-numbing tragedy?
Considering “hope” as a key component of refugee and victim relief is no easy task, but it is possible. Organizations like Room to Read, Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), and RefugePoint are poignant examples of groups working to serve the body and mind of the world’s most vulnerable.