Deeply Meaningful Life May Depend on Death and Tragedy

Updated on October 16, 2019
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Scott S. Bateman is chair of Hanover County Community Services Board, which helps people coping with substance abuse and mental illness.

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A meaningful life may have more meaning for people who have close experience with death and tragedy. But that meaning is there only if they choose to find it.

My family and I have had to deal with several especially traumatic events. The doctors and psychologists who know us well are taken aback by the bad luck that fate has thrown at us. They have known many examples of families who have had one or maybe two tragic or traumatic experiences. A family that has had several of them is rare.

As one doctor recently told me, "In more than 20 years of practice, I have never heard of anyone going through what you and your family have gone through."

But I’m not writing this article to wallow in self pity and ask for pity. Pity is a useless and negative thought process. It solves nothing and only makes the situation worse because it dwells on the problem and not the solution. I’m writing it to share what I have learned with people who have tragic experiences, ask why life is sometimes a source of deep suffering and wonder what to do about it.

I volunteer at an agency that helps people with substance abuse disorder, mental illness and developmental disabilities. The clients and their families have shown me the deep pain that many other people suffer. The cause of their suffering is different in many cases. The impact of their suffering is largely the same.

Common Traumas and Tragedies

Common types of trauma and tragedy include:

  • Unexpected death of a close friend or loved one
  • Physical, sexual and emotional abuse
  • Heinous crimes, such as rape and assault
  • Loved ones with alcoholism or drug addiction
  • War trauma
  • Severe mental illness

Despite these tragedies, a person dedicated to self-help can find positive meaning in them and pursue other meaningful thoughts and actions to compensate for their pain. Even better, they can find a purpose from these experiences that elevate their troubled lives.

Although many average people pursue meaningful experiences, victims of severe trauma may find hope in dramatically increasing the frequency and intensity of their meaningful experiences. They simply have to work much harder than the average person at living a better life.

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Tragedy May Inspire Us or Destroy Us

A young woman we know got addicted to heroin, stole drugs, got caught, went to jail and managed to get a menial job after getting out of jail. She had a shot at redemption, but it didn’t last. She sank back down into heroin addiction, her family abandoned her and she became a prostitute to support her habit.

“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

The war veteran literally had his face blow off. He lost his nose and the entire inside of his mouth including all of his teeth, tongue and gums. All he had left was a sunken hole in the middle of his face.

When he tried to talk, he only could make whooshing sounds. His father had the most haunted look I have ever seen. But the young man’s tragedy didn’t stop him from taking karate lessons at a school where other students tried not to stare at his horrible wound.

The massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech in 2017 did more than take 32 lives. The shooter also wounded 17 students and caused widespread mental health illnesses among the families, friends and classmates of the victims including depression, severe anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress. Some of the living found meaning in the tragedy; they went on to fight for better gun laws among other efforts to improve society.

People who suffer deeply from tragedy, severe trauma or other serious life problems have six basic choices. They can and often do:

  1. Commit suicide.
  2. Drug themselves into oblivion.
  3. Drink themselves into oblivion
  4. Decline into serious mental illness.
  5. Live a miserable half-existence and pray for an early death.
  6. Contain their demons and fight for a better life.

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What is a Meaningful Experience?

The word “meaning” has common usage, such as the sentence, “What does that mean?” It often is used to explain a word or a sentence. It is a label or definition that promotes understanding.

But the meaning of an entire experience is much different than the meaning of a word or sentence. In this view, meaning is an act that provides insight about human nature. The insight doesn’t just end with a deeper understanding about what it means to be human. It also creates or delivers value in other ways. These meaningful experiences may include positive emotional or intellectual benefits such as joy, laughter, satisfaction, fulfillment, etc. Insightful meaning actively engages and uplifts the mind.

For example, I know victims of heinous crimes who discovered a greater sense of empathy and compassion for other unfortunate people. They have found a positive meaning in their thoughts about the crime. They may decide to help other crime victims. If they do, they have gone beyond the positive meaning in their thoughts and found positive meaning in their actions as well.

By pursuing these events more frequently and more intensely, victims of severe hardship in life can shift their perspective about suffering in a more positive direction toward self-help.

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed [the way of achievement or accomplishment]; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone [the way of nature and culture, and the way of love]; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering,” says Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor

Meaning Via Willpower and Mindfulness

Tragedy isn’t a one-time event with a beginning and end. Its impact lasts for the rest of a person’s life. It may trigger multiple “demons” such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress as well as the pain from the everlasting memory. It often changes a person’s entire outlook on life.

Thoughts about the trauma over many years are frequent, intense or both — if the victim is self aware rather than determined to bury them. These mindful people can respond in kind to the many painful thoughts by aggressively pursuing other thoughts and actions that compensate for the pain.

Anyone who wants to find and pursue these meaningful experiences will get there with a fierce perseverance. I am not a psychologist or trauma specialist. But in my experience, a person who has such pain will find hope by aggressively pursuing consistent mindfulness in recognizing these painful thoughts and consistent willpower in taking meaningful action.

A dedication to greater meaning in life probably won’t eliminate all of the pain for people who have experienced trauma and tragedy. More likely, it is a medicine that controls the pain, lessens it and provides at least a partial cure. The alternative is much worse.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Scott S Bateman

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